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Public school funding tops Mississippi voters’ concerns



Photo of middle-school girls from the Mississippi Department of Education.

Mississippians head to the polls in a few weeks to begin the process of electing their next governor, among several other state-wide and local positions, and candidates are flooding voters with messages about issues large and small. Primary elections for all statewide and state legislative offices are August 6. The general elections are November 5.

To determine what the voters say they care about the most, hopefuls naturally look to polling. The quarterly Millsaps College/Chism Strategies State of the State Survey is one avenue to examine what those issues are.

Results of the latest State of the State Survey, released earlier this month, show that Mississippi voters support increasing funding for public schools, raising teacher pay and earmarking a higher share of future state lottery proceeds for public education, according to a statement. They also remain divided about the state’s trajectory and strongly disapprove of the performance of the Mississippi State Legislature.

According to the survey, increasing public education funding has surpassed fixing roads and bridges in the state as the top priority among voters. Nearly 70% say that funding for Mississippi’s public schools is too low, and a majority would use additional state funds to give teachers a pay raise or hire more teachers to reduce class size. 70% believe the $1,500 pay raise passed during the 2019 legislative session helps but is insufficient in size. Over half of voters would use proceeds from the state lottery—which will be up and running soon—to finance these spending increases.

“We believe it is significant that education funding has surpassed fixing roads and bridges for the first time in two years of conducting the State of the State Survey, and that large swaths of the public are united in increasing education funding and improving teacher pay in the midst of a major state election year,” said Dr. Nathan Shrader, chair of the Department of Government and Politics and director of American Studies at Millsaps College in the statement. “This particular State of the State Survey was focused largely on exploring how Mississippians perceive some of the challenges facing public education in our state. We also found that voters want to maintain accountability for students, but have mixed feelings about things such as public charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools.”

Meanwhile, voters are split on the state’s direction with 41% saying that Mississippi is headed in the right direction while 40% say it is heading in the wrong direction, divided across lines of race and partisanship on how they view the state. Just 25% approve of the performance of the state legislature while 47% disapprove.

Among the other key findings of the July 2019 State of the State Survey:

  • The state legislature’s overall net approval/disapproval rating is -22%, but this improves to -9% when voters rate the performance of their own members of the legislature.
  • Mississippians have more positive impressions of the quality of the public schools in their own communities (47% excellent/good; 27% poor/failing) than they do of public schools overall in the state (30% excellent/good; 32% poor/failing).
  • 60% support the Third Grade Reading Gate program requiring students to pass a state reading exam before moving on to the fourth grade. Just 26% oppose this.
  • Over 60% back requiring students to pass a state exam before graduating from high school while 29% are opposed.
  • 43% support the formation of public charter schools (which are publicly funded but not managed by the local school boards where they exist), while 42% oppose them.
  • A quarter of voters support without limitation allowing parents to receive government money or vouchers to send their kids to private or religious schools while 31% are opposed to this outright. A plurality of 37% say that they support the idea, but only in limited cases involving children with disabilities.
  • Nearly three quarters feel that if a family does receive a voucher to pay for tuition at private or religious schools that the schools and students should be held to the same standards for testing and accountability a public schools and public school students.
  • This quarter we recorded an uptick in the share of voters who say that “protecting traditional family values” as their most important policy priority. In the past seven quarters, support for this as the top priority averaged 8% but was at 17% this quarter.
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