Gov. Phil Bryant and the Republican leadership of the Mississippi Legislature ushered several major initiatives into law in the 2013 session, including what’s known as the “third gate,” a program designed to get all students reading on grade level by the end of third grade.
It’s a well-intentioned effort, since reading undergirds all other learning. Research shows that children who can’t read well by the third grade tend to do poorly for the rest of their time in school and are more likely to drop out along the way.
Florida was used by Bryant and others as the model for the third-gate initiative. The goal in that state was that no student would be promoted to fourth grade who wasn’t reading well, and the focus resulted in significantly improved reading scores.
But it wasn’t just an edict to the schools. Florida made major financial investments both in pre-K education and in putting reading coaches into classrooms in the early grades.
Bryant proposed $15 million to fund third gate, far below the level of financial commitment Florida or neighboring Alabama made. The Legislature pared that back to $9.5 million. The state Department of Education hoped to hire 75 coaches for the lowest-performing school districts, but has only been able to recruit 24 for the coming year. That was all out of more than 500 applicants who met the qualifications.
Board chairman Wayne Gann of Corinth and interim state Superintendent Lynn House said the state will step up training for regular classroom teachers to fill in the gap.
Clearly, if third gate is to succeed, more resources are needed and a way to locate more qualified personnel is essential.
Legislators typically bemoan unfunded mandates when they come from the federal government. In this case, school districts are facing something approaching the equivalent. They’ve been told to improve performance – and shown that other states have done it – but they’ve not yet been given the financial resources to help make it happen.
Then, too, there’s the fact that the Adequate Education Program continues to be underfunded, based on the statutory formula, while the pressure for results continually increases.
At some point, Mississippi’s leaders must realize that achieving the success of other states without matching the level of support those states have provided is an unrealistic goal.