The Difference Between Can't and Won't

Sometimes, it seems like my home state of Mississippi can't catch a break.

Recently, a study by Education Week found that Mississippi has the worst schools in America. Mississippi ranked 51st -- behind every other state, and the District of Columbia.

This is hardly the first such study to rank Mississippi last amongst its peers. It seems like every other week another study is rolling out it's analysis, and the news is almost always bad.

You could be forgiven for taking a fatalistic attitude about our state's future. The truth is not that Mississippi can't catch a break, but rather that we won't.

There's a big difference.

"Can't" suggests we lack the ability to be better. "Won't" means we lack the will to improve.

This is the entire basis for a number of brave districts filing suit to demand the state provide them the funding the law requires. Mississippi has the ability to dramatically improve education, but our elected leaders have decided we won't.

They are making critical funding decisions not based on the true costs of providing an adequate education; not based on how much the state can afford; and certainly not based on the overall worth of an education. Our children's future hinges on what our elected leadership finds politically expedient.

They seem to be saying that we can't do any better than last. Our problems are too great to be resolved. The legislature can't pass a law to change the MAEP formula. Our state can't afford to fund it. And even if we did, we can't make any difference.

No. Not, 'We can't.' They won't.

The issues and problems that face Mississippi's educational system, are the same challenges that exist everywhere. When we have invested in education, paid our teachers, and funded schools as the law requires, we have seen dramatic improvement in K-12 attainment, test scores, and many of the other categories by which success is measured.

For far too long, and far too frequently, Mississippi's leadership has made education less of a priority - and our economy has lagged behind the rest of the nation as well.

Not coincidentally, Mississippi has the highest unemployment in the nation, lowest in average annual income, highest poverty rates, and lowest GDP in the country. States that are investing in education continue to see their economies grow at substantially faster rates.

We keep doing the same thing, expecting a different result.

Our state's leaders can't (or won't) recognize that when they give up on our schools, the business community does as well. When they lose faith in our ability to educate our children, industry loses faith in Mississippi's ability to provide an effective and efficient workforce. It's a downward spiral that feels like it can't be reversed - or won't.

Our Governor, Lt. Governor and Speaker have underfunded education by more than $250 million this next year. They place a higher premium on election year tax cuts than making meaningful investments in education.

Mississippi has placed more than $400 million parked in the "rainy-day fund." Well, it's raining, and it won't stop.

We have the money. We can fully fund MAEP. We can improve education. We can have nationally ranked public schools and colleges again. We can invest in our children's future and build a better economy. We can lead the nation.

This is not a question of ability. It is a question of whether we possess the will to do so - or decide we won't.