Analysis: Education will dominate Miss. session

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Want to know who’ll control the narrative of the 2013 Mississippi legislative session?

Look first to the lawmakers who will handle education proposals, and to the private groups lobbying for or against charter schools.

Also look to those who’ll write the budget, handle a bond package and tackle the complex questions tied to health care policy.

It’s been just over 30 years since Democratic Gov. William Winter pushed reluctant lawmakers to enact the Education Reform Act of 1982, a broad package of changes that included the start of compulsory attendance, the addition of teachers’ aides and the creation of kindergarten in public schools. And, it’s been nearly 16 years since lawmakers overhauled the decades-old school funding system with the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex (and often ignored) formula that seeks to give each school district enough money, in theory, to meet midlevel academic standards.

Current state leaders are itching to make their own changes to education. Their biggest push is to get public charter schools, which are designed to have more flexibility in academic offerings, operating hours or disciplinary approaches.

Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, all Republicans, say charter schools should foster innovation that could improve academic performance.

Critics, including Democratic former Secretary of State Dick Molpus, say officials now are taking too narrow an approach to education policy.

“The charter school legislation’s going to suck all the oxygen out of that legislative session,” Molpus said. “If 10 schools get established at 500 apiece, that’s 5,000 students. That’s less than 1 percent of the students in Mississippi.”

Molpus was among the Winter staffers who helped steer the Education Reform Act into law. In 1995, Molpus unsuccessfully ran for governor.

Bryant and Reeves, and their aides, have been talking to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush about changes he made in his state, including putting a greater emphasis on ensuring children become strong readers while they’re in early elementary school. Legislators are expected to consider proposals modeled after the Florida approach.

Some other potential power players this session:

— Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, provides a direct link between administrators back home and lawmakers at the Capitol. An undecided House member or senator might turn to Bounds to understand the implications of education proposals.

— Mississippi First, a nonprofit group, has been shoulder-deep in a wide variety of education proposals the past couple of years, including advocating that schools teach evidence-based sex education courses. This session, the group is deeply involved in pushing for charter schools in academically struggling parts of the state.

— Nancy Loome leads the Parents’ Campaign, a nonprofit group that aggressively seeks full funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Loome sends frequent email updates to tens of thousands of people, generating the kind of attention that’s hard for legislators to ignore — even if they grumble about the tactic.

— House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, will push again to get a bond package after Reeves wouldn’t agree to a House proposal in 2012.

— The Republican chairmen of the Public Health committees — Sen. Dean Kirby of Pearl and Rep. Sam Mims of McComb — have the most influence over whether lawmakers consider expanding Medicaid under the 2010 federal health care law. Although GOP leaders say expansion will be too expensive, they can expect pushback from vocal Democrats, including Steve Holland of Plantersville in the House and Hob Bryan of Amory in the Senate.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus

Follow Daily Journal Bobby Harrison on Twitter @BobbyHarrison9 for updates on the session.