Bill would make high schools pay for unprepared graduates

By Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Mississippi has become the latest state to consider whether school districts should be held financially responsible when students arrive at college unprepared.
State lawmakers likely will vote on two bills this session that would require public school districts to front the costs if their graduates require remedial courses that help them improve basic skills in the state’s community colleges.
More than 40 percent of Mississippi’s community college students need such remedial courses, which cost the state an estimated $35 million in teacher salaries, classroom space and other expenses last year.
Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, introduced one of the bills in this month, and also proposed ending state funding of remedial education classes. Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, introduced the second bill with nearly identical measures.
Advocates of the new measures say increased accountability could prompt Mississippi’s low-performing K-12 systems to improve. But several experts say it could penalize high schools, particularly those in high-poverty areas.
“You need to somehow take into account the difficulties that high schools have,” said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. It’s a “very simplistic notion” to blame the need for remediation on the secondary school system.
The proposed bills would require university and community colleges to report the high school and school districts of every student receiving remedial education to the state. State agencies would then determine the cost of remedial education for those students and withhold school district funding.
Opponents say it makes no sense to take money away from current high school students to pay for students who already have graduated. But Polk, the state senator, says schools should not graduate students that are unprepared.
“Who else do you hold responsible but the person or the entity that graduated the student?” Polk said.
A lack of alignment between high school graduation and community college admission standards is the real issue that needs to be addressed, said Kay McClenny, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Ultimately, what we need to have is not finger pointing and rock throwing across the fence of various segments of education, but really much better collaboration,” she said.
The two bills likely will come up for discussion sometime in the next two weeks, according to Polk.
The bills come at time when Mississippi is considering ways to improve its public school system. The state’s students consistently perform near the bottom on standardized tests; in 2011, students in 44 other states outperformed Mississippi’s fourth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only 62 percent of students graduate from high school within four years and with a regular degree, according to United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings.
Nationally, about 50 percent of undergraduates and as many as 70 percent of those entering community colleges are placed in remedial courses.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.