How a Governor’s Push for “Religious Freedom” Eclipses Education Crisis and Could Bring Back ‘Dark Time’

Mississippi passes anti-equality law while ignoring its dismal education system

Protesters call for Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to veto House Bill 1523, which they say will allow discrimination against LGBT people, during a rally outside the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson, Miss., Monday, April 4, 2016. Photo: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

JACKSON, Miss. – Kindergartners who can’t hold pencils or identify colors. Outdated textbooks in dimly lit, crumbling classrooms. Broken bathroom stalls with missing doors. Ill-equipped science labs and understaffed childcare centers.

These are some of the education woes journalists from The Hechinger Report have encountered in Mississippi, the poorest and worst educated state in the country.

We’ve visited crowded and crumbling classrooms in Canton and on the coast, along with daycare programs that endanger children’s welfare in the Delta. We’ve reported on potential solutions as well, including a failed initiative last fall that would have strengthened funding for the state’s lagging public schools.

Related: ‘Heartbroken’ Mississippi educators wonder what’s next after school funding failure at polls

Through it all, despite repeated requests, we’ve heard little from Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and his office on our reporting for both local and national publications, even after an extensive series in collaboration with the Clarion-Ledger uncovered weak oversight and egregious violations and complaints about daycare conditions – all from the state’s records.

Related: Child Care Crisis: State’s weak oversight puts children in harm’s way in Mississippi

Instead, Bryant has had plenty to say this week on an issue that’s apparently nearer and dearer to his heart than education. He’s making national headlines after signing a far-reaching “religious freedom,’’ bill into law, defending it as a way of protecting people’s rights to “deeply held religious beliefs.’’

Far from being about worship, the law allows private groups and even some private businesses to refuse service to gay, bisexual and transgender people. It has drawn a firestorm of criticism, and major employers have argued against it, while Mississippi Manufacturers Association urged Bryant to veto it.

Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, issued a statement calling it “an attack on the citizens of our state,’’ adding that the bill will serve as “The Magnolia State’s badge of shame.’’

Mississippi’s education advocates are irked that the state’s 64th governor believes protecting “religious beliefs,’’ matters more than making sure some 490,000 students statewide get the resources and the quality education they need.

“I predict this mean-spirited, legally questionable legislation will backfire against its proponents,’’ said Dick Molpus, a former Democratic secretary of state and co-founder of Parents for Public Schools.

Molpus believes the bill will lead to “mobilizing a legion of Mississippi citizens who want to focus on the real enemy of being 50th in educational attainment and health care.’’

Related: Mississippi has a school funding fight on its hands: Will kids be the winner?

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, right, walks past reporters on his way to a meeting of a youth jobs program board, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Friday, April 1, 2016. Photo: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Others say it could contribute to an exodus: some 25,000 residents have already left Mississippi since 2010, according to Jake McGraw, public policy coordinator at the William Winter Institute and editor of Rethink Mississippi.

The reasons include the state’s troubled school system, a lack of jobs and a feeling among residents that they are “socially unwelcome and politically unrepresented,’’ McGraw wrote recently.

Visit Mississippi and it’s impossible to ignore the legacy of racism and segregation, and the lack of a vibrant, thriving community of young professionals with plans to put down roots, even though Bryant has recently defended the Magnolia state, lauding its “hospitality,’’ and calling for an end to “Mississippi bashing.”

Related: Private academies keep students separate and unequal 40 years later

Statewide, one of every three children lives in poverty. Nearly three quarters of fourth-graders are struggling readers and public schools are chronically underfunded. State spending is far lower per pupil than its neighbors and test scores are always among the lowest in the U.S. For years, Mississippi was the only state in the south without a publicly funded pre-k; its current program serves only a small portion of students.
No bills meant to improve or provide funding to a problem-plagued private childcare sector have become law while Bryant has been in office. This legislative session, a bill designed to coordinate the multiple agencies that work with childcare centers passed the Senate but died in the House education committee.

Bryant’s office did not respond to multiple requests from The Hechinger Report for a comment on this and other childcare legislation.

Meanwhile, the state passed a bill that allows adults to carry concealed pistols or revolver for personal protection without government permits or fees, despite opposition.

Last fall, voters narrowly rejected an initiative that would have provided far more resources to schools. Bryant vehemently opposed it and, after the defeat, national attention died out.

Not so the recent law, which followed North Carolina’s passage of a similarly controversial law widely seen as anti-gay.

A Bryant backlash is building among equal rights groups and businesses. The governors of New York and Vermont and the mayor of Seattle have already banned any official travel to Mississippi until the law is repealed. New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a statement calling it a “sad, hateful,’’ measure.

Bryant and other Mississippi Republicans and conservatives maintain that the law protects Christians and others from compromising their religious beliefs in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling. Bryant also says the law prevents “government interference in the lives of the people from which all power to the state is derived.”

None of this will focus positive attention on Mississippi. The vitriol the law is creating will likely be more hateful than helpful. I can’t help wonder how things might be different if state leaders took a more dramatic stand on improving education, where there is nowhere to go but up.

Related: Mississippi has a school funding fight on its hands: Will kids be the winner?

To be fair, Bryant has pushed his own somewhat tepid “reform agenda,’’ that calls for ending social promotion, more school choice and boosting standards for new teachers.

But he has yet to address the many other crucial education problems. For example, Mississippi leads the south in black student suspensions and black males are glaringly absent from high school graduations in the state. We’ve found towns so desolate and bereft no teachers want to live in them. We’ve discovered that so-called “segregation academies,’’ continue to split communities and enroll fewer than two percent of the state’s black students.

Related: McComb educators savor small victories while wondering: Where have all the black boys gone?

We’ve also been buoyed by meeting so many hard-working educators, advocates, parents – people who are pushing hard for change and are fearful of what the law portends. They want to move Mississippi forward.

“Governor Bryant turned back the clock to a dark time in Mississippi’s past,’’ noted a statement issued by Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Mississippi cannot afford to go back.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Liz Willen

Liz Willen is editor of The Hechinger Report and director of The Hechinger Institute.