CLAUDE HARTLEY: State board chair promotes schools' agenda

While the beginning of the Legislative session in January may be several months away, this is the time of year when the Mississippi Board of Education must set our priorities for the upcoming session. Our top priority for the 2007 Legislative Session is full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). Our other funding priorities include:

- Increasing the at-risk allocation in MAEP by an additional five percent.

- Funding a statewide pre-kindergarten program

- Funding the high school redesign initiative.

- Restoring the teacher supply funds that have been diverted to MAEP from Education Enhancement Funds.

- Restoring the public school building funds that have also been absorbed into MAEP.

- Funding a minimum of a three percent teacher pay increase with a plan to bring teacher salaries in line with the Southeastern average within five years.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program was designed to ensure that all schools were funded in an equitable manner. MAEP must be fully funded for schools to be successful.

Since MAEP was passed by the Legislature in 1997, MAEP has been fully funded only once. In addition, some of the programs that were designed to ensure that funds were available for school buildings and supplies have been diverted into MAEP, which means that schools do not have the full amount they need to meet the expectations of children and parents.

Portions of the sales tax diversion into the Education Enhancement Funds has been absorbed into MAEP since 2003.

Because of this, districts have not had the resources needed for instructional supplies. For the past five years, Public School Building Funds have also been absorbed into MAEP, leaving districts without the resources necessary to make much-needed repairs and renovations to their schools. Just like maintenance at your home, once you get behind, it gets harder and more expensive to do everything that needs to be done.

We also have programs that are funded, but not to the level necessary for schools to provide the services expected by students and parents. MAEP contains a five percent allocation for at-risk students; however, the national average is approximately 40 percent. Schools need additional resources to provide the additional instructional materials, one-on-one instructional time and tutoring services necessary to help these students succeed.

We also feel it is necessary to provide our teachers with a pay increase that will keep Mississippi from falling further behind the Southeastern average. We support a minimum of a three percent increase, which will cost $33 million, and a plan to bring teacher salaries in line with the Southeastern average within five years.

We also support funding a statewide pilot pre-kindergarten program. All but 10 states, including Mississippi, have a state-funded pre-kindergarten program. The investment in a pre-kindergarten program will pay dividends in increased graduation rates, improved performance on standardized tests and reduced retentions.

We support the plan for “Redesigning Education for the 21st Century in Mississippi” and have been meeting monthly to refine it. Designed to be implemented over five years, this plan can dramatically change the face of Mississippi by creating a better-prepared workforce, which will help recruit and retain business and industry. When Mississippi’s business and industry community prospers, the quality of life for all of us improves. We believe the $24 million budget for the first year of the five-year implementation is money well spent to improve economic development in our state.

The Mississippi Economic Council has invited state Superintendent of Education Dr. Hank Bounds on their “Trailblazer Tour” to discuss the plan with business and community leaders across the state. I appreciate the Mississippi Economic Council supporting the Redesign Plan through this tour. It is important that our communities across the state understand the plan and what it can mean for our state because that’s where the renaissance really takes place—at the local level. Our schools, with the support of their local businesses and communities, will take the plan and turn this vision into reality.

Through this plan, our schools can raise student achievement and lower the dropout rate. They can make greater progress than we have ever seen in our classrooms. However, they must have the support and resources necessary to make the bold changes set forth in the Redesign Plan.

If we want to ensure that every child in Mississippi has an excellent education, then we must fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and increase its at-risk component, restore the public school building and school supply funds, adequately compensate our teachers, begin offering pre-kindergarten programs, and fund the high school redesign plan. We cannot continue to expect our schools to do more with less.

Claude Hartley, a Tupelo resident, is a businessman and former chairman of the Tupelo Public School Board.