First Common Core, now critical race theory threatens public schools in Mississippi

Published 8:58 pm Friday, September 3, 2021

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Bobby Harrison

First, it was Common Core. Now, critical race theory is the ‘biggest threat’ to Mississippi schools.

A few years ago, many in the state argued that the enactment of Common Core national education standards would result in the ruin of Mississippi’s public education system.

Email newsletter signup

Now, some of the same people are making similar arguments about critical race theory. Both Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, whom many believe will challenge the incumbent governor in the 2023 Republican primary, used a considerable amount of their time at the Neshoba County Fair political speeches in late July pledging to pass legislation during the 2022 session preventing the teaching of critical race theory.

Reeves called critical race theory “the latest, dumbest idea.”

The exact definition of critical race theory varies, perhaps depending on a person’s political views. Essentially, it is the teaching that systematic racism exists in the country, which makes it more difficult for people of color to succeed. While some might argue about whether critical race theory is good or bad, there has been no report of it being taught in Mississippi public schools. That didn’t stop Reeves and Gunn from spending more time talking about it at the Neshoba County Fair than addressing COVID-19, which was surging in the state.

Before critical race theory, there was another evil that was going to pollute Mississippi schools: Common Core.

Late in 2014, then-Lt. Gov. Reeves made big news at a meeting of the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government by announcing he would work during that next legislative session to keep the state from adopting the Common Core national standards.

“We cannot accept this heavy-handedness from Washington telling us how best to teach our children,” Reeves said of Common Core, which was developed by the nation’s governors but later embraced by the administration of President Barack Obama.

Reeves had, to that point, been mostly silent on Common Core even though the Department of Education already had spent millions of dollars developing the national academic standards, which were relabeled by the state Board of Education as Mississippi College- and Career- Readiness Standards.

But as conservatives in the state and nation began to criticize the national standards, Reeves decided he needed to enter the fray and voice his opposition to Common Core. His efforts were unsuccessful.

But years later, seldom is a word heard about the evils Common Core has inflicted on Mississippi schools.

On the other hand, Reeves often touts the strong performances of Mississippi schoolchildren on tests that are part of the national standards that were the premise behind Common Core.

It might be important to point out that the state Board of Education contends it did not adopt Common Core, but Mississippi specific standards. But many, including former Gov. Phil Bryant, contended at the time they were essentially one and the same. And to that point, as late as 2018, state Sens. Angela Burks Hill and Michael Watson, now the secretary of state, filed legislation to try to force the state board to replace the Mississippi College- and Career- Readiness Standards, which they contended were nothing more than Common Core. That bill died in the legislative process.

Reeves’ efforts to block Common Core during the 2015 session resulted in legislation that would establish a commission to make recommendations to the state Board of Education about new standards and would require those standards to not to be called Common Core. But by that time, the board already had adopted the alternative name for the standards.

Bryant vetoed the legislation, saying, “I am steadfast in my belief that Common Core must be abandoned, and SB2161 would do nothing to realistically accomplish that.”

Reeves countered, “Gov. Bryant’s veto of a bill that 93 legislative Republicans supported ensures that Common Core will remain in Mississippi schools.”

Yet those schools seem no worse for the wear from Common Core, and many of those same Republicans often tout recent achievements in Mississippi schools.

On his official web page, Reeves boasts: “In 2019, Mississippi students led the nation in educational gains in reading and math. We have significantly improved testing scores while the rest of the nation has remained stagnant. Graduation rates have risen dramatically in Mississippi, surpassing all experts’ expectations. Education groups all across the country are looking to Mississippi and asking themselves how they can replicate the success happening in the Hospitality State.”

OK, Common Core is not ruining the public schools. But, no doubt, critical race theory will…

“Socialists seek to turn Americans against each other and against this country by introducing critical race theory in our schools,” Gunn said at the Fair. “We cannot allow our schools to teach that one race is better than another. Those days are behind us.”

But the days of finding the latest bogeyman inside Mississippi schools may not be gone.

Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.