LLOYD GRAY: No break in education politics

Lloyd Gray MugA new school year began last week in Northeast Mississippi and across the state, the annual ritual of a fresh start.

While teachers and students returned after enjoying a summer break from the classroom, there was no letup in the politics of education while school was out. Summer developments and discussion continued to draw attention to the political divide in education policy debates in Mississippi.

Funding is where the differences always begin. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which sets a formula for funding, has been in full effect since 2002. But the formula has been met only twice, in 2003 and 2007 – both election years. It has fallen victim to a combination of state revenue declines during the recession and lack of political will.

Because local districts have been getting less in recent years than the law calls for – $1.3 billion less since 2008 – full funding under the formula will drop for the first time for the next fiscal year. It’s likely to cost at least $28 million less to fully fund schools under MAEP for fiscal year 2015, which starts next July.

Still, nobody expects full funding to be realized in the 2014 legislative session. Even with state revenue collections rebounding to an all-time high of $5.1 billion in FY 2013, the political dynamics aren’t right for full funding with Democrats pushing for it and Gov. Phil Bryant and the Republican legislative leadership not considering it a priority.

On another issue, a group of Republican senators not in Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ circle have announced their opposition to the Common Core state standards for schools, which Mississippi and 44 other states have embraced and which will be in full effect next year. The state has already spent much time and money getting teachers ready for the more demanding standards, which emerged as a bipartisan effort from the National Governors Association and included the staunch support of former Gov. Haley Barbour. Bryant and Reeves are also on board with the standards.

But politics has intervened since the Obama administration embraced Common Core. Even though Obama is closer to basic Republican thinking on education than on any other topic – he’s for charter schools, tougher standards for students, more accountability for teachers – the favorable attitude of his Department of Education toward Common Core has raised some political hackles, especially among those who don’t like the idea of national educational standards in any form.
Common Core isn’t perfect, but its primary purposes of setting the bar high for all students and allowing each state to see how it measures up against a true national standard are essential if American education is ever to regain its international leadership.

Mississippi’s new charter school law creates a state board for reviewing and authorizing charters, and the first four appointees were named last week, three by Bryant and one by the state Board of Education, which named interim Superintendent Lynn House. Bryant’s appointments should provide some reassurance to public school supporters that the board won’t be filled with people who have an agenda antagonistic to public education.

Interestingly, Bryant signaled that his emphasis on education will shift to public safety in 2014. It apparently will be left to Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn to put any additional emphasis on, for example, strengthening a charter school law that wasn’t quite what Bryant or either of them had hoped for.

In any case, it’s a sure bet that politics and education policy will continue to be intertwined. Let’s hope the children and teachers who resumed their cooperative venture last week are the beneficiaries, not the victims, of how the politics plays out.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.