OUR OPINION: ‘Third-gate’ literacy bill falls short

By NEMS Daily Journal

Passage by the Legislature of what’s called a “third gate” bill aimed at achieving grade-level reading by all students by the end of the third grade started out with high hopes that proven methods and ideas successfully used in Florida, among other states, could be adapted for Mississippi.
The legislation’s conference report passed this week falls short of the mark because it lacks key elements cited by some of its chief backers in the Capitol and among the state’s leading advocates for education progress.
Reading proficiency is the foundation for all education progress, and many public school supporters believed that using the Florida model, which achieved substantial results, could become effective in Mississippi.
Mississippi’s effort, however, lacks some of the key components that helped make the Florida model effective.
Testing of all children for reading proficiency and problems in K-third grade is only an option, not mandatory. Former state superintendent of education Tom Burnham, in an earlier Daily Journal article, stressed the importance of testing to achieve maximum reading results. He said students should be measured each year and those who are behind should get additional days of instruction.
“If you don’t do it that way and you just build a wall at the end of third grade, you are going to have another crisis in education,” Burnham said. “You are going to have thousands of kids get to that wall and what are you going to do?”
Mississippi already has standards for retaining, or to use old terminology, failing students and holding them back. If a new system doesn’t improve on the old system it’s not progress.
Reading coaches, who work directly with the Florida teachers who teach reading, are not provided in the Mississippi bill.
The $9.5-million appropriated is “woefully inadequate,” in the words of Parents’ Campaign executive director Nancy Loome. She notes that Mississippi’s amount per student compared to Florida’s financial effort is 4 percent of Florida’s per student expenditure.
However, the bill’s shortcomings could be remedied if Gov. Phil Bryant, who is urged to call a special session to deal with Medicaid funding, were to include the third-gate legislation as an item in the call. Only the governor sets the agenda for a special session.
The third-gate idea has proven merit, but a half-hearted effort won’t get the job done. Florida made a full commitment, and Mississippi must match that vigor.