New law focuses on troubled districts

JACKSON – The goal of the Children First Act is to prevent schools from failing, not for the state to take over schools, House Education Committee Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said Wednesday.
Brown, other legislators and education leaders were on hand Wednesday in the Old Supreme Court Chamber of the state Capitol where Gov. Haley Barbour signed the Children First Act into law.
The legislation has been hailed as a landmark effort to deal with chronically low-performing schools, which have been cited as a primary reason Mississippi remains at the bottom of most indicators of educational progress.
“To give all our children the best chance at a bright future, our schools must perform to the best of their abilities,” Barbour explained in prepared remarks.
Most of the attention has gone to measures in the bill giving the state board more authority to take over school districts that are failing for two consecutive years and to remove the governing board, administrators and staff.
But Brown said those provisions aren’t the primary objective of the bill.
He pointed out the legislation gives the state Department of Education more authority and resources to work with poor-performing districts, requires more accountability and forces the districts to do more to garner community involvement in the schools.
“The majority of this bill’s focus is on preventing schools from failing,” Brown said. “That is what this bill is all about – preventing schools from getting to the point where we have to take them over.”
The legislation was developed based on recommendations from a legislatively created task force.

Under-performers
But in recent years state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds and the state Board of Education have placed the focus on the need to improve the so-called underperforming schools districts so they can reduce their dropout rates and improve achievement levels.
“Regardless of some of the significant obstacles our boys and girls are facing, I truly believe they are all eager to learn and more than capable of excelling…,” Bounds said.
The intent of the legislation, he added, is “to ensure that the leaders of all our schools believe that too and are taking appropriate actions to make sure all children receive a first-rate education.”
State Board member Claude Hartley of Tupelo did not attend the bill-signing ceremony, but he has been a vocal advocate for the passage of the Children First Act.
During the ceremony, Barbour also announced the state had received a $150,000 grant from the National Governor’s Association, courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to work on ways to turn around poor-performing districts.
He said the grant would work hand in hand with the Children First Act.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/Daily Journal