Governor, others tout education bills during signing

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

FLOWOOD – Gov. Phil Bryant and the Republican leadership of the Mississippi Legislature touted the educational accomplishments of the recently completed 2013 session during a bill signing celebration Wednesday at Northwest Rankin High School.
In November, Bryant held a similar event at Northwest Rankin where he said he wanted 2013 to be the education session. On Wednesday, Bryant signed several education bills into law that he said would change the course of the state’s public schools.
Bryant called the package of legislation “the most transformative education act in Mississippi history.” He said the “restructuring of the education system will help Mississippi move forward for many generations to come.”
Later, Bryant acknowledged the 1982 Education Reform Act that among other things created a statewide kindergarten program was important, but added that 30 years later, more significant action was being taken.
The legislation signed into law Wednesday will:
• Create a charter school system that will allow the schools to receive public funds without having to adhere to the governance and guidelines of traditional public schools. But the schools will sign a charter to meet certain benchmarks.
• Establish a third-grade reading gate that will require most students to be proficient in reading to advance past the third grade.
• Establish tougher standards for teachers and develop a scholarship program to attract top students to the teaching profession.
• Develop a pilot merit pay plan for teachers.
• Require schools that do not graduate 80 percent of their students to develop an action plan to improve their percentages.
Bryant told the crowded high school auditorium that on Tuesday he also signed into law a bill that would create a limited pre-kindergarten program. The Legislature also appropriated at least $6 million for the pre-K program.
But Bryant said the pre-K law must be analyzed for its effectiveness.
Former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, who in the early 2000s donated $100 million to work on improving reading in the early grades, was among the many education advocates who attended the bill signing. He said he believes the third-grade reading gate, which is using the system his Barksdale Reading Institute, has employed to work on improving reading levels, and the pre-K bills would have the most impact on the public schools.
He said more money was needed for those efforts, but said it was a start.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told the crowd of legislators, education officials and Northwest Rankin students the goal is for every child, regardless of income or where the child grew up “to have the opportunity to succeed. I believe the bills signed today all help move us toward that goal.”
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, Rep. John Moore R-Brandon, the two Education chairs, as well as Senate Education Vice Chair Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, attended the ceremony.
All of the bills signed Wednesday were part of Bryant’s Education Works agenda, though many of the proposals had support from various other groups. Some key parts of his agenda regarding school choice were rejected during the 2013 session.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com