Analysis: Education focus shifts to implementation

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — If 2013 was the education session for Mississippi’s Legislature, it will be followed by the implementation season.

State leaders will have to create structures to authorize charter schools and fund prekindergarten programs. Literacy coaches will have to be hired to implement a new focus on reading grades K-3, along with training for thousands of teachers.

Along the way, more money will be required to bring some of the visions to fruition. And traditional demands for higher teacher pay and more state aid to local schools could rebound, especially as the 2015 state elections near.

At the end of the 2012 legislative session proponents vowed they would try again to push a bill expanding the opportunities for charter schools in Mississippi. In the summer of 2012, Gov. Phil Bryant, began setting the table for a broader education agenda. The Republican governor didn’t get everything he wanted — for example lawmakers ditched his call to allow students to enroll in any public school anywhere in the state — but he was successful in several efforts.

“We started out from the very beginning talking about this being a transformational session, and indeed it was,” Bryant told reporters the day lawmakers adjourned.

Charter schools won the most attention, as many House lawmakers continued to fight broadened authority. In the end, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves decided to accept the bill the House had passed, though it was more limited than the Republican preferred.

“If the charter school bill compromise had been made at the beginning of the 2012 session, I don’t think you’d have seen the acrimony we had along the way,” said Rep. Wanda Jennings, R-Southaven, who fought charter school proposals.

Legislative success, though, may not signal acceptance from everyone. Though a handful of black Democrats ended up voting for charter school bills, most remained stout opponents. They represent some of the struggling school districts Republicans say they most want to help.

“It makes no sense to me, the areas that need the most help are the ones that vote against getting the help they need,” said Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune.

But opponents continue to say that charter schools — public schools run by private groups — aren’t truly aimed at helping black children.

“I see charter schools as being a back door to individuals who have their children in private school to have the state to be able to pay for it,” said Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

Proponents predict that when charter schools begin to open their doors, some resistance will soften. “People will see what charter schools really are, instead of the caricature painted by opponents,” said Forrest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

Next up will be appointing a seven-member authorizing board to solicit and approve charter school applications. Bryant says he’s already looking at names for his three appointments. Reeves gets three and the state superintendent of education gets one.

The board would begin operations Sept. 1, hire a combination executive director and lawyer under the law and seek proposals for schools by Dec. 1. Charter schools would be authorized for five-year terms.

Two other significant programs were also approved by lawmakers. One effort aims to improve student reading instruction in early grades, capped with a pledge to flunk third graders who can’t score at a basic level on the state test. The other would funnel money to groups of preschool providers in hopes of expanding and improving prekindergarten instruction.

“A lot of it will be decided on how all these programs are implemented,” said Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, who authored the House pre-K bill. “We can’t be a group of policy makers who pass some legislation and walk away thinking the problem is solved.”

The prekindergarten program, if Bryant signs it into law, would only offer 1,325 spots statewide in its first year. And the reading program was allotted much less money than similar efforts in Florida and Alabama. For prekindergarten, at least, lawmakers will have to add money next year if they want to follow advocates’ growth plan.

“If they prove to be successful programs, we want to find ways to support them,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton.

Increasing funding would be easier if the state has $300 million in the bank in embarking on the 2015 budget year, as lawmakers expect. If tax collections continue trending modestly updward, there could be even more money. That could help Democrats press the argument that the state should fully fund its education budget.

The gap between what the state is spending and what the formula calls for, about $300 million in the just-approved budget, will fall when a mandated once-every-four-years recalculation of the formula occurs later this year. That’s because the formula bases adequacy on what a group of average districts spend, and schools have been spending less after earlier cuts.

“I think the main thing is, we continue to fail to fund our basic funding formula,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.

Some Republicans, though, are trying to shatter the idea that improvement is tied to money. “I don’t think money is going to solve our problems,” Gunn said.

But it could increase pressure for an across-the-board teacher pay increase.

“I’m certainly in favor of a teacher pay raise, but you’ve got to have the money to do it,” Jennings said.

There too, Bryant and some other Republicans want to break the old model forever, ending blanket pay increases in favor of merit pay.

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