Education, as promised, was session’s focus

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant said he wanted 2013 to be “the education session.”
Most Republicans, who now control both chambers of the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion, said Bryant got his wish during the session that concluded Thursday
Words like “transformative” and “historic” were used by the Republican leadership to describe the session.
On social media, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said, “The 2013 session addressed issues that will have an impact on the state for many years to come.”
Leaders of the Democratic minority, meanwhile, say the legislation passed is not likely to produce results to match the political rhetoric.
“Part of all this misdirection is to continue to underfund public education and to talk about everything in the world that draws attention away from that,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.
Indeed, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program that provides the bulk of the state’s share of funds to operate local school districts is a record $300 million short of full funding and starting with the 2008-09 school year the formula has been underfunded by $1.28 billion.
According to information provided by House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, the level of education funding is still below what it was before the recession. For Fiscal Year 2008, the 2007 Legislature fully funded MAEP for only the second time and provided total funds to kindergarten- through 12th-grade education of $2.54 billion. The 2013 Legislature appropriated $2.34 billion for the 2014 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
Frierson said people might say education is the No. 1 priority, but from a funding perspective it is not.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said he does not subscribe to the theory that additional money will solve the public education problems, even with Mississippi currently near the bottom in per- pupil expenditures. Gunn cited that the state is last or near last on most educational achievement measures, and he believes proposals passed in 2013 over time will improve those numbers.
“There is a belief that the problem out there is no money … I don’t subscribe to that view,” Gunn said.
He said programs passed during the 2013 session will have more of an impact than money.
Those include:
• A charter school bill, though proponents many say the proposal is not as expansive as it needs to be.
• A third-grade reading “gate” that puts an emphasis in the early grades on reading and does not promote children past the third grade (with some exceptions) unless they are reading on a basic third-grade level.
• Enhanced standards for teachers and scholarships to attract top students to the profession.
• Funds to help local districts place law enforcement in schools or to allow local school districts to arm employees if their plan is approved by the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Education.
• A requirement that districts that do not have an 80 percent graduation rate develop a plan to improve the rate.
• A pilot merit teacher pay plan.
• A partially funded pre-kindergarten program that is supposed to be expanded in the coming years.
Rep. Cecil Brown of Jackson, who served as Education Committee chair last term under Democratic control, said he believes some of the proposals passed this session “will help around the margin … But the big problem is we’re not funding MAEP.”
Many of the education proposals had bipartisan support. The most unified Democratic opposition was to charter schools and there were more Republicans than Democrats opposed to the phased-in pre-K program, though it had the strong backing of Reeves and Gunn.
Reeves said education received $48.6 million more than the previous year. But $27 million of that total was to pay for the increased pension costs and the rest was for the new programs, such as pre-K and the third-grade reading gate.
Many of the governor’s more controversial proposals, such as providing tax breaks to send children to private schools and allowing students to cross district lines, did not pass.
A proposal did pass that would allow student-led school prayer, which brought threats of a lawsuit on constitutional grounds.
But other proposals touted by many conservative Republicans, such as requiring state enforcement of federal immigration law, were not even debated. The Legislature did put restrictions on abortion-inducing drugs.
Plus, Republicans were able to push through legislation that ensures the Department of Human Services can contract with private companies to collect child support.
Rural legislators said they won a key victory because of legislation that passed requiring the Department of Public Safety to have a driver’s license bureau or a kiosk to provide license renewals in each county at least once a month.
Gunn said he was personally pleased to pass legislation to require people convicted of drunk driving in most cases to have an ignition interlock control device installed in their car that will prevent the vehicle from cranking if they have had too much to drink. Gunn’s parents and sister were killed by a drunk driver.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com