Mississippi's new superintendent of education says, "Poverty is not an excuse." She's talking to Mississippi's leaders, not its kids.

Dr. Carey Wright, Mississippi’s incoming superintendent of education, recently shared a bit of her educational philosophy with the Clarion-Ledger:

Poverty is not an excuse, and you will hear me say that again and again. To me, it’s about what we’re paying attention to, and how we spend our time.

Some may be confused over to whom her comment — “poverty is not an excuse” — is directed. Let there be no mistake: it is Mississippi’s leaders who are guilty of “we’re too poor” excuses, not its children.

After all, it’s Mississippi’s leaders who have only funded public schools to “adequate” levels twice in the past decade. It’s the state’s leaders who have only made piecemeal efforts to establish universal public pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds. It’s the leaders who pay Mississippi’s teachers $6,000 less than neighboring states and $15,000 less than the national average.

Many of those same people, however, will likely grab onto Dr. Wright’s remarks to justify indifference to the challenges our most vulnerable children face. “Poverty is no excuse” could be construed as a restatement of George W. Bush’s famous phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” In other words, poor kids should be held to the same standards as wealthier ones — a fine aspiration, but one that sets kids up to fail unless coupled with the resources necessary to close endemic skills gaps.

Case in point: Mississippi’s new reading “gate,” which, starting in 2015, will hold back kids who don’t read on grade level by third grade. Research shows that, on average, low-income children enter kindergarten with language skills 12-14 months behind their higher-income peers. Most will never catch up without intensive early education and reading instruction. But while Mississippi’s law is heavy on consequences, it is light on support. The law pays for 75 new reading coaches scattered around the state on just $9.5 million in appropriations. A similar law in Florida came attached with $1 billion in funding.

As it stands, an estimated 46% of Mississippi’s 8-year-olds could be forced to repeat the grade. By denying funds for proper reading instruction, the state’s leaders are expecting them do the same thing over again and get a different result. I believe there’s a term for that.

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