News Mississippi Takes A Look at Upcoming Education Reforms
by Chris Davis
An analytical look at the philosophy behind planned education reforms
Mississippi's voters spoke about what kind of public servants they wanted when they elected Republicans for governor, lt. governor, House (majority), Senate(majority) and most other state offices. Those office holders responded by promising conservative policies.
Gov. Bryant told us that the next legislative session will focus on education and reforms he considers conservative and reforms he believes will better serve the students in our public schools. Earlier this summer, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was brought in for a forum held at the Old Capitol, where he and Bryant pushed reforms, some of which have already been enacted, like the A through F grading system. Others include charter schools, which was rejected last session, and performance-based pay for teachers.
Last week when the first group of A through F results were announced, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves issued the following statement:
“I am proud of the improvements made in many of our school districts, but with 66 percent graded at C or worse, clearly the Legislature’s work to reform our educational system is only beginning,” Reeves said. “More rigorous accountability standards will better prepare Mississippi students for college or career, and public charter schools will give Mississippi parents a choice in their children’s education. The new transparent grading system gives parents and communities an honest picture of where their district stands. Now, we must continue our efforts to give students and parents the public education system they deserve.”
We wondered at this point if lawmakers were or would be taking a conservative approach. The reason-Reeves said in the statement that the Legislature would be key in getting the schools up to standard. That means more rules, regulations and programs, such as charter schools. Charter schools will have to be funded. They need facilities, books, teachers and a curriculum. With schools already hollaring about inadequate funding, the question is now, "Where is the money coming from?"
When Bush spoke this summer, he suggested that we reform first, meaning that we provide money for the reforms before K-12.
We have spoken with educators and former educators who have told us that the school systems as they are now are seriously underfunded, with the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (money for teachers) falling short since the 1990s. The results-less teachers and more students in crowded classrooms.
House Education Chair John Moore was listening when Bush spoke. We asked him after that about the idea of funding the reforms first.
"I think it's a very unique idea. I made a mental note when he talked about that," said Moore. "We will never reform if we do it the way we're doing it now where we use the left over money for reforms."
We asked him Monday if the expected reforms would be a conservative approach. In other words, if more governent rules and spending more to fund the programs without having the money, would work.
Moore's answer is that the status quo is not working for Mississippi students.
"There's an increasing amount of our tax dollars from the local level, state level and the federal level that are being used in an education system that are not producing the product," he said.
Now some notes about Bush and his company and heritage, since many of the programs that are now being embraced by concervative lawmakers are also being endorsed by Bush.
Bush chairs the Excellence in Education initiative, which he says is modeled on successes in the Florida public schools. That system has the second highest number of charter schools in the U.S., according to Bush, whose brother, former Pres. George W. Bush signed the "No Child Left Behind Act" into law.
Mississippi, under conservative leadership, applied for, and was granted a waiver from that law.
As far as an "honest picture" of how the state's schools are performing, Forest Thigpen, with the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, admits faults with how the grades are assigned.
"I'm happy with the new grading system. How they derive those grades is something I'm still concerned about. They need to raise the bar as the State Board of Education had originally intended when they put the accountability system in place three years ago. But they have voted each year to keep the bar low," he said.
There may be no simple answer to the problems of educating Mississippi's children. Some educators are telling us they believe the answer is to adequately fund MAEP and make sure schools get the money they need to keep enough teachers on staff for a good student-teacher ratio.
There are a few months for contemplation by lawmakers, who no doubt have already begun to write the bills that will create the above-mentioned reforms.
Vouchers and charter schools may be the wave of the future in the Magnolia State, but year after year of budget crunches and the MPACT freeze may make lawmakers want to take a second look at the bottom line.