House of Representatives District 68: Candidate Q&A
Candidates for this office were offered a questionnaire on education issues by The Parents’ Campaign. See below for responses received to date.
Zakiya Summers WINNER
1. What is your experience with K-12 public schools, personally and/or with your children or family? I am a proud product of Jackson Public Schools, graduating from Jim Hill High School. My K-12 education has been absolutely vital to who I am and my career. Much of my service work through various non-profit organizations I’ve worked for has directly been tied to improving the lives of children and families.
After a few years in the newsroom, I moved into public relations and began working at the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation, where all of our programs and activities were focused on providing access to health care and excellent customer service to mostly low-income families. There, I created the Empowering Minds, Saving Lives Teen Summit, inspired by Dr. Aaron Shirley, in an effort to curb Mississippi’s high teen pregnancy statistic by providing sex education to young people. This work led to my appointment on the Hinds County Health Department’s Family Planning Council, where we review and provide feedback on materials and documents for public use.
At One Voice, my work was also focused on improving the quality of life for marginalized and vulnerable communities through policy and advocacy. One of the many projects I led there was the Mississippi Black Leadership Summit, which provided a space for elected officials, school officials, religious leaders, and community advocates to discuss practical strategies and share successful models to help move the state forward. I also created Mississippi Girls in Action, a program that equipped young ladies with the tools and resources they needed to affect change in their community. Through various workshops, youth were exposed to local change agents so that they themselves could identify their own civic identity and community responsibility.
At the ACLU of Mississippi, I have increased my capacity to make societal impact through systemic change. In our educational equity center of focus, I have led campaigns alongside advocates that have worked to dismantle the school to prison pipeline. The Keep Students Safe campaign advocated for a reform policy for restraint and seclusion of our children in public schools. Data showed that these procedures were disproportionately being used on students of color and students with disabilities. Our work led to the Mississippi Department of Education establishing a policy that provides for minimum standards for the use of the techniques.
In addition, the Sunflower County Systems Change Project (SCSCP) addressed the stereotypes surrounding young men and boys of color by engaging systems, establishing best practices and supportive strategies, and improving outcomes in an effort to create positive pathways for young men and boys of color. The R.O.O.T.S. project also grew out of SCSCP work, and helped to center the voices of young men and boys of color to create narrative change about who they are and who they can become. My role was to support the program through communications and overall strategy. I was responsible for creating and executing the communications plan with the advocates who were leading the program. This project ultimately shifted the school’s discipline policy to a restorative approach, and helped to change the entire Sunflower County community.
In my role as Hinds County Election Commissioner, I established the Student Poll Worker Program, conducted several voting registration and voting demonstrations at schools, and partnered with the Jackson Council PTA to train and help facilitate JPS Youth Ambassador Election Day at all high schools.
2. Do you agree that the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) should be fully funded every year? If yes, what actions will you take to ensure full funding? If no, explain why. I absolutely agree that MAEP should be funded every year. I will work alongside organizations, educators, legislative colleagues, etc. to strongly advocate for this measure. I also want to examine and hold the state accountable for allowing sales tax dollars meant for education to go into the general fund. I am certain that the state has the money to fully fund education. I also believe that we need to take a look at the 27% CAP to ensure that districts who are in need of more resources have access and receive their fair share. In addition, I believe we need to reinvest our corrections dollars into our education system and ensure that any additional revenue (game betting, lottery, etc.) is properly appropriated to education. Lastly, I will oppose any efforts to provide corporate tax credits that do not explicitly have a ROI for education.
3. What will you do to ensure state revenue that is sufficient to provide all of the services Mississippi’s citizens need to lead productive lives? I will work to ensure that two very important factors are in the language of legislation. They are implementation and sustainability. Often times, the legislature passes bills that are unfunded, do not provide the provisions for how they will happen, and do not have long-term vision attached. So, I will work to ensure that any state revenue is used not for cronies and legislative friends, but for the people we serve. So it is imperative that efforts to fully fund education in accordance with MAEP must also be accompanied by a mandate that requires the state legislature to fund according to statute.
4. Will you oppose vouchers that send taxpayer dollars to private schools, religious schools, home schools, or virtual schools? Why or why not? I will absolutely oppose vouchers that send taxpayer dollars to anything outside of public education. I am a staunch opponent to taxpayer dollars being used to privatize education. It is the biggest issue we’re dealing with right now in Mississippi when it comes to public education.
5. Do you agree that all K-12 schools that receive taxpayer dollars, including private voucher schools, should be accountable to taxpayers for the quality of education they provide, using the same accountability measures as public schools? Absolutely. Any entity using taxpayer dollars should be held accountable to taxpayers. It is totally unfair that voucher/charter schools have access to taxpayer dollars with no accountability, while public schools are held to separate standards. This needs to be changed.
6. Public schools serve the vast majority of Mississippi students with disabilities. Do you agree that special education services in public schools should be fully funded every year? (Special education has been underfunded by the state every year since 2008.) If yes, how will you accomplish full funding? If no, explain why. Yes, I do. I do not agree with taxpayer dollars being used for special education services outside of public schools that can’t provide the services in the first place, which is what’s happening now. Special education services need to remain a part of the formula, and should be fully funded.
7. Do you agree that Mississippi should provide high quality early childhood education statewide?
Yes, I do agree. Unfortunately, Mississippi has not provided statewide early childhood education. However, the state is providing resources to certain areas according to if legislators come from those areas. If Mississippi wants to move in the right direction, we must ensure that our children are prepared to enter Kindergarten.
8. The nation’s top teachers say that the greatest barriers to school success for K-12 students are family stress, poverty, and learning and psychological problems. What steps do you believe legislators should take to alleviate these obstacles for Mississippi children? Legislators need to take a look at the ratio of law enforcement versus support services inside schools, and look at ways to increase support services. An immediate action would be to amend HB 1283 – the MS School Safety Bill – passed in 2019 to include statewide guidelines and training for school resource officers; matched funding for support services like therapists, nurses, and psychologies; and a program implemented by MDE to engage parents and the community.
9. Do you support raising teacher salaries at least to the level of our neighboring states and raising pay for teacher assistants? Absolutely. One of the most important aspects of strengthening the profession in the state is enacting competitive pay that helps us compete with neighboring states.
10. Do you agree that retired educators (and other retired state employees) should be able to draw their retirement while serving in the Legislature? I sure do.
11. Legislators have little or no staff to help them understand the many bills they must consider. Before introducing or supporting a bill that could affect public education, will you commit to seeking input from teachers, principals, superintendents, and parents of public school students in your district? Who will be advising you on education policies? I commit, and I believe it is utterly important. As an advocate, I know how critical it is to have an impacted community as a part of policy-making decisions. I look forward to working with The Parents’ Campaign, One Voice of MS, Rims & Judy, AFT, MS NAACP, MAE, MS Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, as well as educators, parents, students, and community. I will intentionally seek advice and feedback and will consistently report back and coalition with the aforementioned groups/people.
12. Legislators receive tremendous pressure from the leaders of their chamber (House or Senate), state and party leaders, and corporate lobbyists, to vote in ways that may contradict the will of their constituents and harm their communities. How will you respond to this pressure? I will respond through my values (honoring my word, showing respect), and always keep at the forefront that my constituents are trusting me and counting on me to do what’s right. Brother Hollis Watkins says, “Even when you stand alone, stand for what’s right.” When there is an opportunity to have a conversation, I will work through that… but ultimately, I will fight for what’s right and represent constituents and community to the best of my ability.
Cassandra Welchlin (defeated in primary)
1. What is your experience with K-12 public schools, personally and/or with your children or family? My entire education experience was through Jackson Public Schools (JPS). I graduated from Bailey Magnet in 1991. My three children attend JPS and for the past 11 years both my husband and I have been actively engaged at the school and district level. I’ve served in various capacities. For the past three years I’ve had the honor of serving as PTA President at one of my children’s schools. In 2015, I was recognized as Parent of the Year at my local school and placed second as parent of the year for the entire District. I also served three years on the Jackson Council PTA as Vice President of High Schools. My husband currently serves on the Bond Oversight Committee to track and monitor the construction of projects and the expenditure of funds associated with the $65 million bond referendum. I believe parent engagement contributes to positive outcomes of children and the success of local schools and the communities surrounding them. I’m committed to having healthy and whole children and communities.
2. Do you agree that the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) should be fully funded every year? If yes, what actions will you take to ensure full funding? If no, explain why. I believe education is a Human Right and every child regardless of race, socio-economic status, and ability should be provided a free, public, and equitable education. As a parent, activist, social worker, and advocate I’ve actively supported and have worked to push for fully funding MAEP. When children have access, equity, supports and tools educationally they succeed and that means our communities thrive, our workforce is competitive and our economy is stimulated.
When elected I will:
• Introduce and support legislation that drives back charter schools and limits the number of charter schools that can be placed in a school district,
• Support actions that fully fund MAEP with an increased amount for children who are abled differently and need extra support services,
• Require companies that receive tax incentives to pay taxes that will go toward our general budget for education to support teacher pay raises.
3. What will you do to ensure state revenue that is sufficient to provide all of the services Mississippi’s citizens need to lead productive lives? MAEP has only been fully funded twice. One of the biggest challenges to ensuring sufficient revenue is an ongoing practice of giving tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy. Companies must pay their fair share in taxes and create quality, high paying jobs in District 68 and across the state of Mississippi to ensure families have economic security to lead productive lives. Increasing taxes to make the system fairer, levels the playing field for all Mississippians and gives our children an opportunity to compete with the rest of country.
4. Will you oppose vouchers that send taxpayer dollars to private schools, religious schools, home schools, or virtual schools? Why or why not? Yes, I will oppose vouchers that send taxpayer dollars to private schools, religious schools and home schools, or virtual schools. Privatizing schools harms our state over all especially poor communities, people of color and rural communities. We can’t expect our public-school children to succeed when dollars are constantly being taken away.
5. Do you agree that all K-12 schools that receive taxpayer dollars, including private voucher schools, should be accountable to taxpayers for the quality of education they provide, using the same accountability measures as public schools? As a parent, activist and in my professional capacity, I’ve long supported holding private voucher schools accountable to the same accountability measures as public schools. This is particularly important for children with disabilities and children of color to ensure they are being educated fairly, appropriately and equitably. This also allows parents to have a voice in their children’s education.
6. Public schools serve the vast majority of Mississippi students with disabilities. Do you agree that public school special education services should be fully funded every year? (Special education has been under-funded by the state annually since 2008.) If yes, how will you accomplish full funding? If no, explain why. The measure of a society is the willingness to take care of their most vulnerable. I’m committed to not cutting money out of the state budget to serve children with disabilities and at-risk students. As a mom of three children with disabilities and a former social worker of children with mental health challenges, I know the struggle of not having robust and sufficient services which can hinder their quality of life and educational experiences. As a lawmaker I will commit to first funding at risk students and children with disabilities. Budgets are a moral document and we must make sure it reflects our values of caring for the most vulnerable.
7. Do you agree that Mississippi should provide high-quality early childhood education statewide? Early childhood education is critically important to the state’s education system. The data shows that when children are educated in early learning settings, they are better prepared and successful when they enter K-12 especially when schools are funded. Child care is often left out of the early learning discussions at the state level. However, it is critically important to have a child care subsidy program that is also funded to support working moms of low wealth. These moms need access to affordable child care so that they can go to work and their children can be in an innovative and safe learning environment. Child care that is full day, year-round supports the work schedule of the mom and allows for continuous educational services for the child without interruption. Therefore, I support early learning that includes child care for moms and parents of low wealth.
8. The nation’s top teachers say that the greatest barriers to school success for K-12 students are family stress, poverty, and learning and psychological problems. What steps do you believe legislators should take to alleviate these obstacles for Mississippi children? Mississippi (MS) is the poorest state in the nation, with women and children disproportionately harmed by poverty. MS continues to rank at the bottom in child well-being, and worst in women’s economic well-being. Communities of color are disproportionately impacted. The MS legislature can work towards improving the lives of all Mississippians through the budget making process and making laws that improve people’s kitchen tables regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status and political affiliation.
9. Do you support raising teacher salaries at least to the level of our neighboring states and raising pay for teacher assistants? When we increase teachers’ salaries, the success and livelihood of our teachers improve. They can now focus on their first love of teaching rather than working two and three jobs just to make ends meet. We’re putting more money in their pockets and that’s good for our economy. If they get paid more, they spend more. Retaining qualified teachers by paying more encourages them to stay. As a result, MS keeps our most talented teachers in addition to building a high-quality teacher corps. MS has a critical shortage of highly qualified teachers particularly in communities that are majority children of color, poor, and rural. This is good economics for MS and our children.
10. Do you agree that retired educators (and other retired state employees) should be able to draw their state retirement while serving in the Legislature? I absolutely agree. The legislature should not be limited to those with means. This is about inclusion, diversity and equity. Everyone regardless of socio-economic status should have the opportunity to participate in the political process at every level – even as an elected official. The current system and pay of being an elected official prevent working people with low wealth and many times women from serving because it is an economic barrier. In the state of MS women are often times the co-breadwinners and sole breadwinners of their families. A lack of diversity and inclusion contributes to the gaps in our policy making process. Allowing retired teachers to draw down their retirement opens up a pool of people who can not only serve well but they bring expertise and experience from the field to the policy making table.
11. Legislators have little or no staff to help them understand the many bills they must consider. Before introducing or supporting a bill that could affect public education, will you commit to seeking input from teachers, principals, superintendents, and parents of public-school students in your district? Who will be advising you on education policies? Over the past 15 years of my career as a policy advocate and community organizer, I’ve worked with lawmakers to provide expert data and information from the field that prioritizes the voices of local people. I’m committed to continuing this practice. I currently serve in coalition with many education partners such as Parents’ Campaign, MS Association of Educators, American Federation of Teachers, ACLU of MS, Southern Poverty Law Center, One Voice, principals, teachers, and parents.
12. Legislators receive tremendous pressure from the leaders of their chamber (House or Senate), state and party leaders, and corporate lobbyists, to vote in ways that may contradict the will of their constituents and harm their communities. How will you respond to this pressure? The late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, MS said that if you don’t love the people, sooner or later you will betray the people. People must be what drives our political process, not the latter. As a servant leader, this belief is central to my core value system as an activist, practitioner and concerned citizen. I have demonstrated that over my life personally and life’s work. I also believe in accountable leadership, as a community activist, I was trained by sons and daughters of the movement who taught me that a leader must be accountable to the people they are standing up for and with. As a result, I’ve developed a circle of wise council that keeps me grounded in my convictions and core belief. At the end of the day, I must give an account to the Lord for how I’ve carried out justice and served His people.