Education in Mississippi

From the early 19th century, education in Mississippi has been an opportunity for youth to grow academically. Social injustice and the rural layout of the state have caused hindrances to the development of education. Today, Mississippi struggles with meeting national assessment standards and the state also has low graduation rates. New policies are being worked on in the Mississippi legislature to build better learning environments and standards in the classrooms.

Early Education Efforts
Prior to the American Civil War, educating the youth in Mississippi was in the hands of academies and private schools. There was no set curriculum enforced throughout the state, and children mostly stayed at home to work to support the family.

Funding for the few schools was left to private donations and student tuition. In Columbus, Franklin Academy for Boys was opened in 1821 and was the first of many public schools to sprout up in throughout Mississippi. By 1830, only 13 percent of white children were enrolled in public schools and there was limited access to government funded schools at the beginning of the Reconstruction.

Education in the Constitution
The first piece of legislation to offer free education to all children, regardless of race is Mississippi’s Constitution of 1868. The Constitution established a “uniform system of free public schools, by taxation or otherwise, for all children between the ages of five and twenty-one years.”

Legislation was passed in 1870 and created school districts under the supervision of an elected State Superintendent of Education and appointed country superintendents, as well. Areas of a population with at least 5000 were permitted to establish separate schools districts and extend the school term to seven months.

The Constitution also provided the following features in its legislation to establish a public education system: 1. Administration: the state superintendent of public education must be elected to provide “general supervision of the commons schools and the educations interests of the State.” A State Board of Education shall also be made up of the State Superintendent, the Attorney General and the Secretary of State. 2. School Term: The school year should also be at least four months. Any county that does not abide by the guidelines presented in the legislation should forgo its share of school funding and taxes. 3. Funding: The common schools were funded from a combination of revenue earned from the sixteenth sections lands, and excise tax on alcohol, military exemption fees and public and private donations specifically designed for public education. Funding was then invested in the United State bonds and the interest collected was allotted to support school systems. A poll tax was also levies to aid in funding education.

The Constitution also specifically state that public schools or its funds were not to be controlled by any religious group and forbidden for public schools to convert in a parochial school.

African Americans and Education
Missionary groups in Northern Mississippi helped establish schools to educate African American youth. White supremacists realized the on-goings on such missionary groups and demanded to have control of the system, hoping to quell efforts to educate African Americans.

The Constitution of 1868 did not include information on integrating public schools and it was determined by legislators that each individual school district to include integration or not. Superintendents of each county were told to divide the funds equally between white and black schools in the district, but equal rights was very uncommon and most of the funding was sent to white schools.

Therefore, white schools were better constructed and were able to better serve the students academically. During the 1870s, education for blacks was further endangered as violence erupted in protest to educate African Americans. Also, the government cut greatly decreased funding for public schools and effectiveness of schools diminished.

State Superintendent J. R. Preston in 1886, created a revised education code that slowly raised standards in the classroom and teachers were then paid more in salaries than before and were required to take teacher licensing exams.

Leaders in Education
The Mississippi Board of Education, which currently has nine members, oversees education policy in the state. The Board appoint the State Superintendent of Education, sets public education policy and oversees the Mississippi Department of Education.

Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution states the that the Mississippi Governor shall appoint one member from Mississippi’s Northern Supreme Court District, one member from Mississippi’s Central Supreme Court District, one member from Mississippi’s Southern Supreme Court district, one member who is employed as a school administrator, and one member who is employed as a public school teacher. Additionally, the Lieutenant Governor shall appoint two members-at-large, and the Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representative shall appoint two members-at-large.

Current Board Members include Charles McClelland, Wayne Gann, William Howard Jones, Kami Bumgarner, Howell N. Gage, Claude Hartley, Sue Matheson, Martha Murphy, Rosetta Richard and Superintendent Tom Burnham.