Education to get Legislature’s focus

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Education, always an important topic in legislative sessions, could be the dominant issue of the 2013 session, which starts Tuesday.
It seems everybody has ideas about how to improve public education that they want to present to the 2013 Legislature.
“This year, we must be serious about improving our education system,” said Gov. Phil Bryant, who will present a litany of education proposals.
Bryant’s proposals range from charter schools, to merit pay for teachers, to scholarships to attract more top students to the teaching profession, to several school choice options.
The support for Bryant’s proposals is varied.
“I think to have a proposal to have scholarships to attract more teachers is always a good idea,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who went on to say state-sponsored scholarships to allow students in low-performing schools to go to private schools “is not very effective.”
Perhaps, the Republican governor’s most controversial proposal is to allow people to receive state tax credits to provide scholarships to allow students to go to private schools. The proposal, which was supported last year by a number of legislators, including Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, would likely face a court challenge, Byrant conceded. He contends, though, he does not believe the scholarship program violates the state Constitution’s prohibition on spending state funds “on any school … not conducted as a free school.”
While the scholarship proposal would be embraced by many Republicans, the education issue that the legislative leadership has coalesced behind is charter schools. Bryant, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and particularly Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, have made passage of strong charter school legislation a priority for the 2013 session.
“I will not stop pressing for public charter schools until they are a reality in Mississippi,” the Republican Reeves said in a speech last year.
Charter schools were killed during the 2012 session because members of the Republican majority who had concerns about them joined with large-scale opposition by the Democratic minority.
This year charter schools appear to have momentum, but, as is often said in the legislative process, the devil is in the details. Some of the keys are whether charter schools can be allowed only in low-performing districts with the approval of the local schools boards, whether a new state agency will be created to authorize charter schools and whether for-private companies will be allowed to operate the entities.
Those issues could bog down passage of legislation that would allow charter schools, which are schools that receive public funds but operate outside many of the rules and the governance of traditional public schools.
FUNDING ISSUE
Some contend the most basic fix needed in the state’s public school system is to fully fund it. Since the 2007 session, when it was fully funded, the state’s public school system has been underfunded by more than $900 million based on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula.
The budget proposal of the legislative leadership leaves public education about $300 million short of full funding for the upcoming school year. The governor’s budget proposal provides about $21 million more for public education – primarily to fund his proposals, such as $15 million for programs to ensure children are reading on grade level before they leave the third grade and are sufficient in certain areas of math by the seventh grade and $2 million for a merit teacher pay pilot program.
But there will be legislators focusing on funding above all other education issues since the state is near the bottom in per pupil expenditures.
“There has been a suggestion to cut the shortfall in half during this session,” Bryan said, “That seems like a reasonable thing to do. That should be the first order of business – to follow the law and start the process” to fully fund education.
EARLY EDUCATION
Among the other initiatives that will be considered is early childhood education. Bryant has proposed $3 million to continue Building Blocks – a pilot program started by the private sector to provide the training and materials to improve early childhood learning in existing day-care facilities.
Building Blocks advocates are requesting $5 million in state funding. Jim Barksdale, former Netscape CEO who in 2000 donated $100 million to the state to help ensure elementary students learn to read and more recently has touted the Mississippi Building Blocks program, said early childhood education is essential to the state’s improvement in its education attainment level.
Mississippi is currently the only Southern state not to spend any state funds on early childhood education. Florida, which is the example many Mississippi legislative leaders cite on such issues as school choice and school accountability, guarantees access to early childhood education for all children and limits class sizes in its Constitution.
Barksdale said it would cost $250 million annually to add another grade to the public schools. He said the Building Blocks program could be enacted statewide for at least $100 million less.
The budget proposal developed by the legislative leadership does not include any funds for early childhood education, but Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Reeves, said, “The Senate Appropriations Committee will review several ideas.”
Overall, look for education to be a hot topic for the upcoming three-month legislative session.
Reeves said earlier this year, “I have a message for people in both parties who are scared of the future of education reform – buckle your seat belts. Reform is coming to Mississippi.”
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com