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Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has vowed to focus on education when this year’s legislative session convenes next week, with literacy and school choice at the forefront of his agenda. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Bryant said that his goal is to get “something transformational” passed during the three-month session this year.

Mississippi education
Skeptics of education reform plans in Mississippi say that the state should focus on early childhood literacy instead of charter schools and private school vouchers. (Photo by Jackie Mader) Credit: Jackie Mader

But several education advocates are skeptical that change is really coming in a state that has long posted some of the worst school performance and child welfare results in the nation.

In November, Bryant released his nearly $3 billion proposed education budget, which included $2 million in funding for a teacher merit pay pilot program and $15 million for literacy initiatives. The budget was a disappointment to those who hoped that the state would finally fund pre-kindergarten. Mississippi remains the only state in the south, and one of 11 in the nation, which does not provide state-funded pre-kindergarten.

Instead, Bryant is focusing on charter schools and an initiative called “third-gate,” which would prevent most students from moving to fourth-grade until they are reading on grade level. “Theoretically, it is a good idea,” said David Morgan, coordinator of a family literacy program for the Mississippi Humanities Council, which tries to improve adult and child literacy in the state. But “logistically and financially, it’s going to be quite a burden.”

Democrats responsible for passing the state’s most sweeping education reform act more than 30 years ago have also voiced doubts, calling Bryant’s agenda items “small-scale.” The Education Reform Act of 1982 made school attendance compulsory and created a public kindergarten system in Mississippi.

Former Gov. William Winter, who persuaded legislators to pass the 1982 law, says that Mississippi has lost momentum to improve its schools. “We’ve lost that political will to do the hard things that must be done,” he said in remarks during a forum at Millsaps College. Dick Molpus, who served as Winter’s staffer and a former Mississippi secretary of state, added that the ideas being presented this year are artificial solutions that will reach only a small minority of Mississippi students.

“The fact is that we’re not funding our basic education formula,” Molpus said in an interview with The Hechinger Report. The Mississippi Adequate Education Plan (MAEP), a formula that determines how much money the state must provide to individual school districts, has only been fully funded twice in the last decade, according to a recent report in the The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.

Molpus has cited charter school and private school scholarship proposals as distractions from the state’s true educational needs. Last spring, a contentious charter school proposal failed by one committee vote although many officials believe this year’s measure will pass.

In an opinion piece written for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, interim state superintendent Lynn House said that while the state’s board of education supports full funding of MAEP, they are “mindful of the current economic times and the difficult decisions our lawmakers face in funding all state services.” House highlighted what she called “sweeping reforms” that are on the agenda, such as a $2.5 million early childhood pilot program and a $1.5 million investment in drop-out prevention.

But Molpus said legislators need to move past smaller issues promoted by lobbyists and special interest groups and instead take “giant steps” in education reform. “I don’t see sweeping improvements to lift the literacy level and academic attainment of citizens of our state,” he said. “What we’re doing here…it’s infinitesimal in terms of education reform.”

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