What’s Behind the Awards Curtain

State leaders are congratulating themselves for a recently announced national education award, which hails Mississippi for Governor Bryant’s 2013 “transformational education reform package,” citing charter schools, the A-F rating system, and literacy initiatives as markers for success. The award is given by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), of which Governor Bryant is a commissioner and member of the steering committee.

The governor’s quote in ECS’s award press release emphasizes school choice as a top priority for his administration and the key to making our state’s “public education system the most innovative in America.” The first two charter schools in Mississippi opened in the current school year and academic results for the 220 students in those two schools are not yet known.

ECS says the 2016 Frank Newman Award for State Innovation is based in part on improvements in Mississippi’s National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores in 2015, although most of the reforms had not been implemented in time to affect the spring 2015 administration of the NAEP, including not a single “school choice” reform. Who gets the credit for students’ rising achievement – for example, a 32-point gain in NAEP fourth-grade math scores, greater than all other Southeastern states and 12 points higher than the national average gain? The credit belongs not to politicians but to our students and teachers who are working hard day after day to reach the challenge of Mississippi’s College- and Career-Ready Standards.

So what is the award really about? A majority of ECS’s funders happen to be entities that sell testing/teacher evaluation products or organizations that push school choice initiatives; they also hire lobbyists who woo legislators to pass laws that will benefit their clients.

ECS funding “partners” include Renaissance Learning, a company with which Mississippi has an almost $5-million contract for the third-grade gate assessments related to our state’s literacy initiative and the kindergarten readiness assessments. Other ECS funders that have contracted with the State of Mississippi for testing or other education services: ACT, Amplify, Measured Progress, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and Pearson.

House and Senate Education chairs, Gray Tollison and John Moore, who helped pass the governor’s reform package and have championed broad school choice measures, also serve as ECS commissioners.

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