Mississippians of every stripe and political persuasion are pushing efforts to bring Mississippi children to the same level of achievement enjoyed by students in other states – to level the playing field when it comes to quality of education, student achievement and opportunity for life-long success. While legislators and education leaders have been successful in making advancements in many arenas, the issue of school governance remains a challenge. Many are holding fast to the status quo.
At issue is whether 64 Mississippi school districts should continue to elect, rather than appoint (or hire), their superintendents. Out of some 14,500+ school districts nationwide, only 147 – about 1% — have elected superintendents. Only 3 states (Mississippi, Alabama and Florida) elect any superintendents at all, and Mississippi elects the most.
The most obvious problem with electing superintendents is that the process limits the pool of available candidates. School districts with appointed superintendents can choose their leaders from the local community, the state, the nation or the world. School districts with elected superintendents are limited to those who live within the school district at the time of election.
Our most recent election paints a clear picture of the problems that this system creates. Of the 65 superintendent races, 20 – or 31% – were uncontested. Another school district had no one – not a single qualified person – file to run for superintendent.
We might assume that the 21 districts without multiple candidates were uncontested because all their schools are high performing – that the level of satisfaction with the way schools are run makes folks reluctant to change leaders. Some of the 21 districts fall into that highly successful category, but many do not.
Many of the districts with uncontested races had low-performing schools. Two had level 1 schools, the lowest level possible. One district with a level 1 school had uncontested superintendent races in 2003 and 2007.
It is difficult to imagine a career that demands a higher level of skill than does that of school superintendent. Superintendents must be experts in curriculum, management, discipline, budgeting, public relations, and child psychology among others. We rely upon superintendents to ensure the safety and proper education of our most precious resource, our children. Yet, in 31% of the school districts that elect superintendents, the community had no choice. They simply got the person who signed up, the one person who lived within the school district and was willing to wage a political campaign.
Additionally, when a district elects a superintendent who proves to be ineffective, the children of that district are stuck with an ineffective leader for 4 years (until the next election). It has been proven time and again that children simply cannot make up for 4 years of ineffective education.
Mississippi does have some highly effective superintendents who happen to be elected. Those same individuals, however, would be eligible to be appointed were that the method of selection.
Certainly, no system is perfect, and we do have ineffective appointed superintendents. That situation must also be corrected. Both the House and Senate have passed legislation to create a task force to consider meaningful consequences for any school district that underperforms for 2 consecutive years. But current law makes it impossible to hold poorly performing elected superintendents accountable unless the district becomes a priority district, is taken over by the State Department of Education, and is assigned a conservator. The goal is to catch and improve districts before they drop to that level. Putting all superintendents, and all school districts, on a level playing field, and making all immediately accountable, is a step in that direction.
Surely the children in districts with elected superintendents deserve to have their school leaders chosen through as broad and diligent a process as do the children in districts with appointed superintendents. The Senate has passed legislation calling for a move to appointed superintendents in all districts that are low-performing for 2 consecutive years. That is a step in the right direction. The House will now have an opportunity to move the proverbial ball farther down the field. They should do so.
If we are serious about reforming education, we must leave no stone unturned as we seek to discover the barriers that have prevented us from moving Mississippi children to the same levels of achievement enjoyed by children in other states. We simply must not allow school districts – any district – to continue offering Mississippi children a substandard education. Our kids deserve better than that.