OUR OPINION: Education still focus as session nears end

By NEMS Daily Journal

Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn all promised that education would be the primary focus of the 2013 legislative session. They’ve kept that pledge.
Heading into the final three weeks of the regular session, the Republican leadership’s education program is largely intact. Differences remain to be reconciled, and nothing is ever certain in the Legislature, but that so much has survived so long is testimony to the effectiveness of a planned and sustained focus.
They’ve compared this wave of education legislation to the Education Reform Act of 1982, which at the time was the most comprehensive state education legislation ever passed in the United States. This year’s reforms aren’t as far-reaching, but some of them do have significant potential.
Expanding the state’s charter school law has dominated discussion, but it’s unlikely to have the most important long-term impact of the proposals still alive. The first state funding for early childhood education, modest as it may be, will be a critical step in ensuring that all Mississippi children have the opportunity to be ready for school when they enter kindergarten.
A focus on having all children reading on grade level by the third grade, if it is accompanied by training and additional support for teachers, can have a major impact on student achievement since reading is the foundation for all learning. Higher standards for teachers and incentives to attract top-performing students into the profession are needed to ensure that every child in Mississippi has the best instruction possible. The data show clearly the overarching importance of a quality teacher to student academic performance.
Even the move toward referendums for school districts with elected superintendents to decide if they want to change to appointed school heads, while achingly cautious, at least gives advocates of opening the field for school leadership beyond narrow geography a chance to make their case. Charter school legislation, along with most of the rest of the education agenda, must still be negotiated in joint House-Senate conference committees. The final bill should be targeted to the areas of strongest potential positive impact by charters – those with chronically underperforming schools – and should not allow for-profit or online charter operators.
The 2013 legislative session could prove to be a pivotal one for public education, but there’s a ways to go before the final product can be assessed.