Jacqui James is a friend since 2008 when we did the Lessons Learned From Rural Schools study and she was principal at Southern Choctaw Elementary in Gilbertown. This was one of the ten schools we studied. After 20 years as an accountant, she switched to education. This is her 14th year in education, seven of them as a principal and she served for most of 2014 as Choctaw County interim superintendent. She is the system’s Special Education Coordinator.

Since we’ve heard how great the accountability act is from non-educators, I asked several educators to share their thoughts about AAA. Here’s part of what Jacqui had to say:

“I have not seen where AAA helped Choctaw County. It has cost us money. Coupled with a decline in student numbers, decreased state funding and unfunded mandates at the state level, our ability to offer the best education possible to our students has been crippled. Classrooms are overcrowded, there’s no money for routine maintenance, and we lack  funds to provide the basics teachers need. At the end of each year I ask teachers  for a “wish list”. I try to take any funds available and fulfill these wishes at the start of the school year. This year one of the wishes was for a computer. I wanted to sit down and cry. It is a shame that our schools don’t have the funds to put working computers in every classroom. The 21st Century is driven by technology and our kids are being left behind. 

Public education has taken a “hit” in funding every year since 2008. Tteachers have had one raise in the past eight years and any gains were offset by higher insurance rates. Teachers are taking home less than they were eight years ago. Schools have not been provided funds for technology, library enhancement, or professional development. I think it was two or three years ago that the legislature finally restored teacher fee money – the $300 is greatly appreciated, but nowhere near the $575 before the state budget went south.. 

It is hard to recruit and retain qualified teachers when we don’t have anything to offer them. Good teachers are leaving because the stress is not worth the returns.  

I have nothing against private schools. I think that the education of your children is one of the most personal decisions a parent will ever make. But sending a child to private school should not be at the expense of public education. Public and private schools have co-existed peacefully here for around 45 years. Parents in Choctaw County who have chosen to send their kids to private school have never asked for a tax refund to off-set the cost. 

Poor counties like Choctaw County cannot absorb the loss of funds to things like AAA. We are the poorest of the poor. Our free-reduced lunch rate is 84 percent. We can’t afford to lose funding – for any reason. 

We have no viable tax base. Georgia Pacific provides over 50 percent of the property tax revenue for our school system. They are also our largest employer. GP recently had a lay-off and the school system lost units again. As for sales tax, we don’t have a Wal-Mart or a Galleria, or even mid-sized business and industry. We depend on state allocations to run our schools. 

When I was a principal we were constantly having fund raisers to pay our phone bills, rent a copier, purchase computers, and buy supplies for our teachers. It’s hard to provide a quality education without appropriate tools. Research has proven that children from low socio-economic backgrounds have a harder time in school. If a child starts kindergarten without knowing the basics – numbers, colors, how to hold a book, and vocabulary – chances are they will never catch up. 

I cannot stress the importance of starting school with an adequate vocabulary. Children in the lowest quartile begin kindergarten with 1000 fewer word meanings than average children. By the end of second grade , they have 2000 fewer word meanings than average. This is why so much emphasis is put on getting a child reading on grade level by 3rd grade.  

What does this have to do with the Accountability Act? Everything. These are the very children this law claimed to be helping. But, how are we helping these children by draining the ETF of millions of dollars? We need funds to put teachers in our schools who can help the kids who need it the most. As much as we need technology, professional development, and library funds – I’ll take a great teacher in the classroom over any of those any day.  

As far as I know, no student in Choctaw County received a scholarship from a SGO to attend private school. Even with all our struggles there is not a failing school in our system. It appears to me that the Accountability Act hurts the very children it claims to help. The money diverted to scholarships would be better used to improve our schools and insure the success of our students.  

Again, the Accountability Act has done nothing to improve public education in Choctaw County.”