By Chris Kieffer
There is no easy answer to the challenges that poverty places on many Mississippi residents.
As lawmakers try to find solutions to help break the cycle, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves believes one of the greatest levers they can pull is improving schools.
“We believe one of the biggest roles we as a government can play in addressing poverty is improving educational opportunities for our kids,” Reeves said.
“You’ve seen a pretty significant push in the Legislature for education reform and for bringing competition into the public realm of education, and I think that is important.”
The 2013 legislative session focused on education, and new laws required third-graders to be reading on grade level before advancing to fourth grade, allowed for public charter schools to locate within the state, raised requirements for those studying to be teachers and provided incentives for top college students to enter the education field. Lawmakers also provided public funds for early childhood education for the first time in the state’s history.
The most hotly-debated of their efforts was the allowance of charter schools, which receive public funds but are given freedom from many of the rules that govern traditional schools. In exchange, they agree to meet certain performance standards.
Critics say that the new schools will drain resources from already cash-strapped public school systems. Reeves argues that they will provide more opportunities, especially for students who live in high-poverty areas. He believes the competition will lead communities to demand better schools and also improve the traditional ones.
“There is certainly debate, but I think the most important thing we’ve done is offer options in the form of public charter schools for those kids,” Reeves said. “What you’ll find in many of the school situations that are performing the worst is they are in areas that have high rates of poverty. They also are in school districts that tend to spend more money on administrative expenses rather than spending their money in an efficient manner to get them in the classroom and provide an excellent opportunity for kids.”
As the Daily Journal has chronicled in this week’s “State of Our Schools” series, Mississippi’s education system faces greater challenges than other states because of its high rates of poverty, teen pregnancy and births to unmarried mothers. State Sen. Gray Tollison, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said those issues do impact the approach to education reform in the state.
“You do have to work differently because children in poverty often come to school not as ready as other kids,” said Tollison, R-Oxford. “That is one of the reasons why I feel like what we did this past year with the third-grade literacy bill and pre-K were so important. Anything we can do to close that achievement gap early, the better off we are.
“The farther they get progressing through the school, the wider the gap becomes, and the harder it is to close that gap.”
Mississippi appropriated $3 million – plus another $3 million in tax breaks – to a program that will provide grants to community collaborations that support high-quality pre-K. It also provided $3 million to the Mississippi Building Blocks program, which works with existing centers to help them improve their quality. Tollison said he would like to see that funding grow.
In a state with limited resources, Tollison said, Mississippi needs to put its money where it makes the most difference.
“The greatest impact is early education,” he said, noting statistics indicate that the return on investment for early learning is $7 to $11 for every dollar spent.
Tollison also would like to see Mississippi improve its dropout recovery efforts, helping those who have left school early to earn their GED or even get a high school diploma and later a two- or four-year degree. He’d like to foster more collaboration between the state’s public universities and its K-12 school system.
Reeves and others said they would like to see more efforts in the upcoming session to improve teacher quality and particularly to find incentives to get the best teachers to work in some of the lowest-performing schools.
Funding an issue
Another issue during the upcoming session will involve a push to increase school funding, as the state’s formula for public schools has been underfunded by $1.28 billion since the 2008-09 school year. Some argue that the lack of funding hits harder in high-poverty school districts.
“They have so many needs that need to be met, and they don’t have the resources of wealthier districts,” said Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks. “Meeting those needs takes money.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Bryant has focused on reducing teenage pregnancy in Mississippi. He spoke about the goal in his inaugural address, established a task force on the issue and has hosted town hall meetings on the topic throughout the state.
Bryant noted a law he signed in April that will allow the Department of Human Services to contract with private vendors to better collect child support. He said the state will be more firm in demanding such payments are made.
“One thing I’m going to make sure of is they are going to support their child and pay child support,” he said. “If they are man enough to have that child, they need to be man enough to support it.”
The law Bryant signed was very similar to a bill Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, authored in that chamber. Collins said the new law will force more young people to take responsibility for their actions.
Collins, vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee, also cited the Legislature’s requirements that schools teach sex education and character education, as well as the efforts on charter schools and pre-K. However, she said, breaking the cycle of poverty will take a broader effort. Businesses and churches will need to play a role, she said.
“I believe our communities are the ones that will break the cycle,” Collins said. “It will have to be the entire community. Education is certainly key, but the emphasis can’t just be on what the school has done.”