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Mississippi Governor Signs Charter Schools Act

‘New era’: Governor signs education reforms, including charter schools, into law
by Jimmie E. Gates
Clarion Ledger
April 18, 2013

Education reform measures signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant constitute real progress, business leader and education advocate Jim Barksdale said.

“Follow-through in future years — which will require funding — and faithful implementation are critical,” Barksdale said.

On Wednesday, in front of hundreds at Northwest Rankin High School, once attended by his two children, Bryant signed into law most of his education reform package including charter schools. He touted it as the most significant education package in the history of Mississippi.

“It is transformative. … It will begin a new era for education in Mississippi,” Bryant said. “The changes enacted by this legislation will help the state create and retain the best teachers, create public charter schools of excellence that will give our students in failing schools access to higher education, and create reading practices that will stop the exercise of social promotion.”

Kevin Gilbert, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said he’s generally taking a wait-and-see approach — that is, will the provisions do what supporters say they will do and will adequate resources be provided for implementation.

Bryant lauded Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and other legislative leaders instrumental in getting the legislation passed.

“The goal we all share is that every child will have an opportunity for success,” Reeves said.

The legislation passed allows up to 15 charter schools a year to start in low-performing, D- and F-rated districts, without local school board approval. Local districts would have veto power over them in A, B and C districts. Reeves and others wanted only A and B districts to have veto power and other more expansive measures, but the House, with only a slim Republican majority and some GOP opposition, couldn’t pass the more expansive legislation.

Reeves believes, once charter schools prove themselves, there will be a push for their presence beyond failing districts.

The Legislature also passed the Literacy Based Promotion Act, designed to prevent the social promotion of children from third to fourth grade if they can’t read proficiently. They would receive “intensive intervention” to help with their reading.

Lawmakers approved $9.5 million to start the program, which was part of Bryant’s “Education Works” agenda, modeled after Florida’s education reforms.

Lawmakers also passed a pilot merit pay system for teachers, a pilot state pre-kindergarten program supporters hope can be expanded and regulations that would require districts with graduation rates lower than 80 percent to institute improvement plans. Education Works also included creating 200 scholarships for students with a 3.5 grade point average and 28 ACT score who commit to teaching in a Mississippi public school for five years.

A strong early education program will be critical to increasing reading scores and for children to be better thinkers, said Cathy Grace, a veteran early childhood educator.

“It has been 30 years since the state last took the next step in needed education reform,” Grace said, and “let’s hope it doesn’t take that long next time.”

But some public education advocates and lawmakers say one thing the Legislature didn’t do with education this year was “fully fund” it. Although K-12’s $2.3 billion budget includes an increase of nearly $50 million, more than half of that was for retirement system cost increases, and it leaves the Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding formula nearly $300 million short.