Meridian Star

January 26, 2013

Miss. lawmakers eye more K-12 education changes

JEFF AMY, Associated Press
Associated Press

JACKSON — Charter schools, though they have dominated the first three weeks of the Mississippi Legislature, are only the beginning.

House and Senate lawmakers are considering numerous other measures to change K-12 education, many of which have never been debated before. Some proposals are being pushed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who spent months calling for 2013's Legislature to focus on education.

"We have brought forward or plan to bring forward an array of ideas designed to improve education in Mississippi," House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said Friday.

Ideas are circulating to pay for more 4-year-olds to attend preschool, give tax breaks for people who donate money for children to attend private schools, require children to read on grade level before passing third grade, and tinker with the public school funding formula.

Thursday, a Senate committee passed a bill to require county school districts that now elect superintendents to appoint them, except where voters opt out.

House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said his committee is likely to take up a similar measure, among 15 or 20 bills he expects the panel to approve.

Moore also wants to change state law to make all school board members elected. Now, board members are all elected in some districts, but can be all-appointed or a mix of appointed and elected in other districts.

It appears likely that both the House and the Senate will give consideration to a plan to increase state subsidies for 4-year-old preschool. Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula and Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, are carrying bills that would create local early learning consortiums. The state would give them money or tax-credit subsidies that the locals would have to match to pay for more children to attend preschool. The slots could be in private or public operations, Barker said. He estimates his bill would create 1,375 slots in the first year.

Those bills could compete with or complement Bryant's request to start providing state money to Mississippi Building Blocks. That program has instructed children, trained preschool teachers and provided materials in private child care centers over the last four years, using private money.

Some ideas seem to have little opposition, as least in concept, such as requiring improved reading instruction in earlier grades and not allowing students to progress if they're not reading well. But questions remain about the details.

For example, The Parents' Campaign Executive Director Nancy Loome says that following Florida's model on reading could require Mississippi to make the same large investments in reading instruction that the Sunshine State did. Others have asked about where Mississippi will set the bar for moving on to fourth grade. Bryant has said repeatedly he wants to set it at "proficient," the second highest of Mississippi's four levels. Using last year's test results, that would have meant flunking more than 40 percent of all third-graders.

State Auditor Stacy Pickering continues to push for changes in how school districts count students for the funding formula, called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. He's scheduled to pitch his ideas to the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

But it seems unlikely that there will be any massive changes to the formula itself. When asked about that possibility Friday, Gunn said "No, we're not going to do that."