Jill Teitelbaum, guest columnist

What’s in a name? According to a growing number of people, some names can cause emotional distress warranting their removal. As such, there has been a recent push towards removing Confederate names and memorials across the country.

The latest case involves a public school in Jackson, Mississippi. Davis International Baccalaureate Elementary School is set to be renamed Barack Obama Magnet International Baccalaureate Elementary School beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.

The school is named after Jefferson Davis who was president of the Confederacy and a vocal supporter of slavery. According to the Civil War Trust, he was a slaveholder and operated his own cotton plantation in Mississippi. It’s understandable that people would be made uncomfortable by his memorialization by a school period, let alone one whose population is 98 percent black.

Removing the names of Confederates is well-intentioned and replacing them with the names of progressive role models is laudable. However, the staggering costs associated with these changes requires a serious look at their feasibility, and more importantly, their opportunity cost.

Although the exact cost of the Davis name change is unclear, the costs for similar initiatives across the country range from $100,000 to over $1 million. For many of the schools involved, the amounts proposed to rebrand them could be desperately used elsewhere.

Mississippi is hardly an exception. According to the state Department of Education, the fiscal year 2017 budget allocation for Mississippi’s public schools will be $172 million below the threshold for full funding. In fact, those schools have not been fully funded since before the recession.

Mississippi also ranks last in public education among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. and has an academic rating of “D.” Even more tragically, Mississippi suffers from the highest rate of child poverty in the nation with a rate of 31.1 percent, according to the Center for American Progress.

Students living in poverty need even more resources than their more privileged peers. Unfortunately, the level of funding directly affects the quality of education. Underfunded schools, including many in Mississippi, fail to provide resources including: updated textbooks, after school programs, art classes and teaching assistants. Therefore, it is imperative that limited school funding be painstakingly prioritized.

President Obama said himself that “In too many school districts, we still have too many schools that despite the heroic efforts of a lot of great teachers, are not fully preparing our kids for success because they don’t have the resources to do it.” Schools that cannot afford the basics should think twice before paying for rebranding. After all, the cost of a name change is only made higher when considering the other alternatives.

David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, voiced common concerns over a similar name change proposal in Virginia, “Is it necessary for this name change to occur? Is this going to make our kids smarter? Is this million dollars that is going to be spent, could that be spent elsewhere? Could this be spent on books, maybe sprucing up the building or helping poor kids in the area get a better education or more school lunches?”

In addition to the financial considerations, another argument can be made that replacing the Confederate names also removes an opportunity to face our past and learn from it.

A professor of history at Yale University, David Blight, specializing in the Civil War and African American history cautioned that “There’s a danger here that we lose hold of learning from the past just by trying to make it feel and look better.”

The financial burden of renaming a school is fairly easy to determine, but the expected implicit benefits are difficult to measure. Morale will likely be improved, but if the school still lacks in basic resources and programs, will it be enough to justify the change?

It’s uncertain whether or not removing Confederate memorials will make a difference. Investing money in the schools themselves seems like a far more impactful move.

Since the renaming of Davis IB Elementary School to Barack Obama Magnet IB Elementary School has already been approved, it’s too late for the money to be allocated elsewhere. Hopefully, the change will at least bring attention to the schools across the South that are in desperate need of attention.

The reality is schools are struggling to provide basic resources and programs with limited funding. Prioritizing where funds are allocated will continue to be a source of debate. One solution to appease both taxpayers and those who seek to rename schools is seeking private funding to pay for any name changes.
Regardless, funding education should be the focus. If the name change initiatives cannot be funded privately or with minimal economic burden on taxpayers, the goal should be educating people about the past while investing in better educational opportunities for students. As George Washington Carver said, “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”

teiteljh@miamioh.edu

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