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Mississippi will probably not fund or create public pre-kindergarten opportunities next year, but will prioritize teacher merit pay, literacy, and dropout prevention, according to the proposed budget released Tuesday by Gov. Phil Bryant.

Mississippi education budget
Gov. Phil Bryant

The proposal asks for more than $3 billion in education funding, a $24 million increase over this year and addresses some of the state’s biggest education pitfalls. But it falls short of what pre-k advocates, and even the state’s Department of Education, had hoped for. The Department of Education requested $2.5 million in their July budget request for an early education pilot program, but their request was left out of Bryant’s proposal. A promising, privately funded pre-k program, Mississippi Building Blocks, also requested $5 million in state funding. Bryant recommended $3 million for the program, which he said can provide valuable data to the state as it determines how to get more involved in early childhood education.

The biggest chunk of the new funding, $15 million, is poised to go toward addressing what Bryant called a “literacy crisis,” by providing literacy training for classroom teachers and supplying schools with reading interventionists. Bryant also vowed to support legislation that would require most students to be proficient in reading before moving on to fourth grade. Only students with learning or testing disabilities would be exempt. Mississippi cannot continue to allow status quo social promotion,” Bryant wrote. “[It] speeds our children down the path to poverty and trampled opportunity.”

Currently, nearly 80 percent of fourth graders in the state are not proficient in reading, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a non-profit child advocacy organization. While many experts point to the early years as the optimum time to build literacy skills, Mississippi remains one of 11 states, and the only state in the south, without state-funded pre-k. “This is ultimately the parents’, not the state’s responsibility,” Bryant wrote.

The remaining money would be distributed among dropout intervention efforts, a pilot merit pay program, and a data system that will gather and analyze teacher and student data. Republican lawmakers have also vowed to renew the push for charter schools, a contentious issue that sparked heated debate at last year’s legislative session. While charter schools were not addressed in the budget, Bryant has expressed support for school choice legislation.

The 2013 legislative session will begin Jan. 8 and is expected to focus mostly on education-related issues.

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