By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
As Mississippi’s legislators debate education reform ideas from Florida, several key provisions will be in the spotlight.
The primary one will be a 2003 Florida law that does not allow third-grade students to advance to fourth grade if they fail the state’s reading test.
Since the law’s passage, Florida has seen significant increases on its fourth-grade reading scores. It has also faced questions of the social impact on students who are retained, given that a large percentage of students who fall multiple years behind their peers tend to drop out of school.
The state’s test score gains have garnered national attention, and five other states have already passed such legislation with the help of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which seeks to spread education reforms enacted by then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The so-called “third gate” was included in Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s education platform and is expected to come before state lawmakers in the current session.
“The one thing I think is most impressive from Florida is the third-grade reading initiative,” said Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, Senate Education Committee chairman.
House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, also expressed his support for the proposal.
The key, some say, will be in the details of Mississippi’s bill.
Florida’s law not only demanded that its students learn to read in third grade, but it also contained several supports designed to improve literacy instruction throughout the state.
That included intensive training for kindergarten to third-grade teachers in reading strategies. Every school was given a literacy coach to work directly with its teachers, and schools were provided supports to begin helping struggling readers in kindergarten.
Florida’s law also funded summer reading camps to help third-graders who did not pass the test. Those students were then given a chance to retake it at the end of the summer.
“What people focus on in third gate is retaining children in third-grade reading, and that shouldn’t be the point of third gate,” said Claiborne Barksdale, CEO of the Oxford-based Barksdale Reading Institute. “Third gate should be about how do we get children reading at grade level before they leave the third grade.”
Those supports will be costly. Bryant’s budget proposal sets aside $15 million for them, but that amount will not be nearly enough to cover all that is available in Florida.
“You can just pass a law that says if they can’t read, they get retained, but that won’t do anything,” said Mary Laura Bragg, national director of policy for the FEE. “It does take money to put these supports in place.
“The primary focus of kindergarten to third-grade is teaching kids how to read … It is not that supports are going to be things that schools are not already supposed to be doing.”
Bragg and others have said schools can use federal funding they have and redirect it toward the reading initiative. But doing so will not be easy for schools that already use those dollars for a specific program.
The Tupelo School District, for example, uses its federal Title 1 money to fund a pre-kindergarten program that serves more than 250 4-year-olds.
“The reading initiative has been very successful in Florida, and we need to look at the components of the Florida law and what exactly they did,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, a Mississippi school-improvement advocacy group.
The most hotly contested educational issue during the current legislative session will be charter schools, publicly funded schools that are free from many state requirements.
School choice, including charter schools, is a big component of the “Florida model.” Although the state began allowing charter schools in 1996, before Bush was elected, the number of such schools greatly expanded during his governorship.
During Bush’s eight years in office, the number of charter schools in Florida increased from 74 to 356, according to StateImpact Florida. The number of students served by such schools rose from 9,135 to 98,755.
Tollison said the charter school proposals Mississippi is studying are not necessarily based on Florida but on a broad spectrum of national examples.
“We need to look outside of our borders and see what is working,” he said.
Another element of school choice being considered by Mississippi does come more directly from Florida, however. Among Bryant’s educational proposals is a plan that would allow individuals and businesses to receive tax credits for contributing to a scholarship fund to send low-income students to private schools.
The plan is very similar to Florida’s Tax Credits Scholarships Program.
“It is another way to allow low-income parents to choose a school that best meets their children’s needs,” said Forest Thigpen, president of the conservative-leaning Mississippi Center for Public Policy.
Moore said he supports the proposal, which he called “a wonderful piece of legislation.”
Loome, however, does not support using public dollars to send students to private schools.
“Governor Bush did some really wonderful things for public education in Florida while he was governor,” she said. “The reading initiative was on his watch, the reduction of class size, the implementation of universal pre-K and those things had a wonderful effect on achievement in Florida.
“It is surprising he wants to attribute the success in Florida to school choice when the research shows the school choice initiatives like the tax-credit scholarships have not provided any academic benefit.”
There is debate on that research. One study from Northwestern University notes that the voucher students performed similarly to those in traditional public schools and that the state’s public schools have shown modest improvement.
Others have questioned that study, Loome said, noting it ignores other resources that had been provided to traditional schools.
A Florida proposal that may come to Mississippi in the future is early-childhood education. The Magnolia State is currently the only southern one that does not provide any state funding for pre-K.
Although the issue has not been publicly discussed much by state lawmakers in advance of the current session, both Tollison and Moore said they would support a proposal similar to Florida’s.
In it, families are given vouchers that allow them to attend early childhood education facilities. In order to receive the vouchers, the child care providers must agree to meet several state standards.