By Chris Kieffer
Throughout 2012, state leaders promised the next year’s legislative session would focus heavily upon education.
New laws allowing charter schools, requiring third-graders to read on grade level, providing funding for pre-K and making it more difficult to get a teacher’s license made 2013 one of the busiest education sessions since the Education Reform Act was passed in 1982.
Most attention went to charter schools, which are publicly funded but are given freedom from many regulations. Proponents say they will spur innovation, create choice and boost achievement. Opponents fear they will draw limited resources from already cash-strapped schools.
Meanwhile, some of the other laws may prove to have an even bigger impact. The third-grade “reading gate” says students must score proficient on a reading test before they can enter fourth grade. The early-education bill addresses an area many have called critical to success of the state’s schools. The state provided $3 million each to two initiatives designed to improve the quality of existing programs – the first public funding in the last Southern state to pay for pre-K.
Gov. Phil Bryant’s Education Works package requires individuals to have higher test scores and grade-point averages before they can become teachers. It also provides scholarships for top high school students to study education.
Education is not expected to receive the same emphasis from the Legislature in 2014, but two issues have simmered in recent months.
One will concern Mississippi’s switch to the Common Core State Standards, guidelines for math and language arts instruction fully adopted by 45 states, including Mississippi. A conservative coalition of state senators has expressed concern with the standards and called for Mississippi to scrap them.
Others – including Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves – have said Mississippi needs higher standards while vowing to ensure there is no federal intrusion.
Another fight will involve school funding. Mississippi’s Adequate Education Program, its funding formula for schools, has been under-funded by $1.3 billion since 2008, and advocates have been more vocal about the need to fully fund it this year.
But early budget proposals by Bryant and legislative leaders call for level funding, about $285 million below full funding.