By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
BRANDON – Gov. Phil Bryant aims to give students – especially those in low-performing school districts – more options.
School choice options are part of Bryant’s “Framing Mississippi’s Future”education agenda that he unveiled Friday at Northwest Rankin High School in front of students, teachers and education officials from throughout the state.
The proposal, he conceded, will be thoroughly debated during the 2013 legislative session, and he said he welcomes other ideas that can advance Mississippi’s educational achievement.
“Mississippi’s children are struggling, and we have a tremendous opportunity to build a better future by investing ourselves in improving our education system,” he said, adding his proposal would cost $26 million – a relatively small amount in an overall state budget of $5 billion
But some are concerned that the school choice option parts of the agenda would take funds away from already cash-strapped school districts and in some instances could create chaos and confusion.
His proposal includes many provisions he has discussed before, such as teacher merit pay, recruiting top academic performers to the teaching profession and putting programs in place to try to ensure students entering the fourth grade are reading on grade level.
The school choice component, perhaps the most controversial, includes:
• Allowing more charter schools, though he said they are needed the most in areas where traditional public schools are struggling.
• Developing a program to provide up to $10 million in tax credits to people or businesses that donate funds for students in low-performing school districts to attend private schools.
• Allowing students to attend school outside of the district where they live within certain guidelines developed by the state Board of Education.
Under Bryant’s proposal, people or businesses would receive a state income tax credit for contributing to Opportunity Scholarships that would provide scholarships to attend private schools for the children of parents earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level or about $32,000 annually. Bryant said the scholarships would be available to students in schools graded as D or F under state Board of Education guidelines. About 2,200 scholarships would be available with the $10 million limit.
He said the private schools would have to meet certain state guidelines to be eligible to receive the students on scholarship.
State Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said he had not had time to study Bryant’s proposal, but in general, questioned taking funds away from public schools and giving them to other entities.
Of the scholarship program, Bryan said, “As I understand it from bits and pieces…it is nothing but taking money out of the state treasury and sending it to private schools.”
He said the charter school proposal also would take money from the existing schools to create “a parallel system even though we are not funding the current system …That is troublesome.”
Houston School Superintendent Stephen Coker expressed similar concerns about charter schools. Of the open enrollment proposal, Coker said he is willing to accept “any student from anywhere,” but the problem is how to plan and pay for transfer students.
Interim state Superintendent Lynn House said she appreciates that the governor is communicating with the state board on his proposals and the board also is committed to improving achievement.
“The school choice piece is the one area with the most questions for us,” she said.
Bryant had said the state board would have to develop regulations to allow students to transfer.
Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he believes it is important to have safeguards in place to allow the district in which a child wants to transfer to the final say on whether to accept students from outside of its boundaries. Overall, of Bryant’s proposals, Tollison said, “I think we are singing out of the same hymnal. There are some issues we have all been working on. We will have to work out the details once legislation is proposed.”
In a statement, Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said, “I agree with Governor Bryant on some of his education proposals.”
He added, “Efforts to ensure that students are academically proficient before being promoted are critical as are efforts that support early childhood education.”
Bryant’s proposal provides $3 million to continue a pilot early childhood education program.
Bryant stressed that he has tried to build consensus and work with educators.
He pointed out he outlined his proposal to more than 450 teachers during a conference call earlier this week and has met with many superintendents.
“My education agenda was created in collaboration with educationleaders, teachers andresearchers and sets a clear path to success,” he said.