Mississippi Legislative Education Committees will likely be busy soon

Not much happened in education reform during the Mississippi Legislature’s first week in session, this past week.

Expect that to change soon.

Both the House and Senate are expected to debate a bill that would expand charter schools in the state and to consider a “third-gate” proposal that would not allow third-graders who failed the state’s reading test to advance to fourth grade.

In reporting for today’s stories in the State of Our Schools series, I spoke with both Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, and Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, the chairmen of each chambers’ education committee. Each of them also expressed support for a bill that would require all Mississippi school districts to use appointed superintendents rather than elected ones.

In fact, Moore was rather precise about his goals for the upcoming session.

“I will consider it to be a very successful session if we move forward with a charter bill allowing charter schools in ‘D’ and ‘F’ school districts, pass a reading-gate bill and pass a bill with appointed superintendents,” Moore said last Monday, on the eve of the new session. “There are many other pieces of legislation down the pipe, and it will be a grand slam if we pass more of them.”

The one he specifically mentioned as part of the “grand slam” was a proposal by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant that would allow individuals and businesses to make tax-free contributions into a scholarship fund to allow low-income students to attend private schools.

“The tax-credit scholarship is a wonderful piece of legislation, and I think it would be wonderful if we can make that happen,” Moore said.

On the issue of appointed superintendents, Tollison noted that of the 14,500 school districts in the nation, only 125 have elected superintendents and about half of those are in Mississippi.

“In a larger district it doesn’t matter, but in a smaller one, you have a limited supply of quality candidates,” he said. “Also, in terms of governance, an elected superintendent doesn’t have to answer to a school board. It ties the hands of a school board.”

Most municipal districts in Mississippi already have appointed superintendents, but the position is elected in many county ones. Some counties, such as Tishomingo and Lafayette, have voluntarily opted for appointed superintendents.

With elected superintendents, candidates must be residents of that county to seek election, meaning districts can not try to bring in someone who has had success in another district. Also, an elected superintendent is not accountable to a school board.

Moore said that he prevented the House committee from voting on an appointed superintendent bill last session because he wanted to study it more. He said he now supports the concept.

“The evidence is not clear that appointed superintendents do better than elected ones, but at the end of the day, you have two elected bodies,” Moore said. “There is an elected school board and an elected superintendent, and in most situations, they are competitive politically.

“Our elected superintendents have become aggressive politically outside of education, which is detrimental. They have used the political machine to help elect or defeat candidates they like or don’t like. Superintendents need to be focused on education.”

Moore said he intends to bring the issue before the committee and let it make a decision on it. No committee members have told him they are opposed to it, he said.

Finally, both chairman shared their thoughts on early-childhood education, an issue many have said is critical to Mississippi but one which has not received much buzz in advance of the current session. Mississippi is the only Southern state that does not provide any funding for early-childhood education.

“I like a proposal that would use existing pre-K, 4-year-old programs, whether private or public and work with them collaboratively,” Tollison said.

Under that model, Tollison said, programs would have to meet certain state standards in order to receive funding. Standards may include assessments and teacher quality. Florida has a similar model, and Tollison noted that Oklahoma, West Virginia and Georgia do too.

Tollison said “it is hard to say,” if the issue will come up in the current session. He also said it is a “critical” issue to consider and noted it would play an important part in preparing students to read before they reach third grade.

“The earlier you work with a child to look at those skills would help, using our existing network of 4-year-old programs and making sure they are providing the skills for students who enter kindergarten,” he said.

Tollison said he’d also like to see more collaboration with the federally-funded HeadStart program for low-income children.

Moore, meanwhile, also expressed support for a program that would provide vouchers to existing childcare providers. He cited Florida’s model and its requirement for meeting state standards to receive funding.

“That is acceptable to me,” he said. “If they don’t want to participate, they dont have to. If they agree, they would be eligible for a voucher.”

He also said he does not know if the issue will come up in the current session. He said he did not author any pre-K bills but that, at the time, he wasn’t sure if the Governor had anything in his package or if Tollison had authored any.