Democrats wielded education spending as a hammer against Republicans in the recent election.

Democratic candidates Dorsey Carson in Jackson, Bennett Malone in Carthage and Steven Kilgore in Philadelphia all posed with the exact same students in the same Jackson Public Schools classrooms in their campaign television and direct mail pieces - illustrating the coordinated effort.

All three Democrat received contributions from the Mississippi Association of Educators (the Mississippi chapter of the National Education Association).

Kilgore even went on the attack against his opponent (who is married to a retired school teacher) criticizing budget and spending votes as a lack of commitment to education based on scoring information from the public education advocate group Parents' Campaign.

Despite Democratic attacks across the state based on education issues, Republicans expanded their majority in the state Senate and took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in the modern era.

The failure of Democrats to use education to maintain legislative control does not suggest Mississippians don't care about education (no more than the failure of the Personhood Amendment suggests Mississippi is not pro-life).

Republicans promised support for education and the GOP takeover of the House could very well spark the boldest education reforms in decades.

Freshman legislators-elect participating in the Mississippi Center for Public Policy (MCPP) legislative orientation last week in Jackson heard from Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice.

A native of Arkansas, Ford fought the fight for school choice and competition in Washington, D.C. which led to the D.C. Opportunities Scholarship Program and the creation of 53 different public charter schools on 99 campuses.

Ford also spoke at the MCPP Liberty Luncheon that day at The Capital Club: "Courage, Change, and Choice: How One Mom Changed the D.C. School System."

GOP poised to do better than simply increase spending and actually enact real education reform.

Ford said she looked at how traditional public schools were failing her children and her community. "I felt helpless," she said, "That's how so many of our parents feel nowadays. Helpless." She needed options for her children and community.

Ford said, "I'm a fighter. I'm from a family of educators. And my father taught me 'If you sit around and complain, nothing will happen. But if you stand up and fight, you can make a change for your children.'" Back in Arkansas, her father was a principal and his district's first black superintendent; her mother was among the first black teachers at a white elementary school.

Ford and other parents united to pressure elected officials into allowing public charter schools where public education money follows the student and not the school. Ford said at one point she had her five step-children in five different charter schools selected according to the skills, interests and talents of her children. "We would choose what was best for the children, not what was convenient for us," she explained. Different charter schools present different flavors of education: military, arts, healthcare - with one of her children choosing a school with focus on foreign languages because she wants to be a translator at the United Nations.

"Education depends on the needs of the child," she said, "I don't care what the delivery system - public, charter, private religious, homeschool - I just want what's best for my babies." Ford said if a public charter schools fails the children, it loses its charter and closes down which is a much higher standard than when traditional public schools fail students.

Ford says the competition of school choice improves traditional public schools because passionate educators are determined they can do anything a public charter school can do. Also, in systems where money follows the child, the school has an incentive to attract students to stay. "If you want to keep kids in public schools, give parents a reason to keep them there," Ford said.

According to Ford, last year 12 states enacted or enhanced school choice programs. Mississippi was not one of them. While the state enacted legislation with the word "charter school" in it, MCPP President Forest Thigpen described it as "counterfeit." Thigpen said in a radio commentary, "It uses the term 'charter school' but excludes anything that makes a charter school a charter school. There is no real choice for parents and no freedom to try a different approach to educating children. This bill took the old law that was so cumbersome that only one charter school was created under it, and it adds additional burdens to the process."

The Republican takeover of the House - combined with Democrats committed to charter schools like Rep. Chuck Espy - could make a difference this year. The Mississippi Association of Educators and the Parents' Campaign may not agree, but Republicans who heed the message of Virginia Walden Ford and examine policies promoted by the MCPP could do better than simply increasing spending on education and actually enact real education reform.

Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at or follow him @CapstonePerry.