Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!
In the few weeks Mississippi’s legislature has been in session, legislators have proposed dozens of education bills addressing everything from the school calendar, to assistant teachers to prekindergarten. While a teacher pay raise and limits on student testing are anticipated to be major topics this year, lawmakers are hoping that proposals on other issues will also make it through the legislative process.
In my last newsletter, I looked at some of the first bills to tackle education this year. Since then, several new bills have been proposed addressing major topics in education like teacher pay raises, school funding, and teacher credentialing programs, as well as bills relating to students with disabilities, graduation requirements, pre-K and school counselors. Here’s a closer look at a few of the recent proposals:
• A statewide online preschool program would bring online prekindergarten instruction to students under House Bill 201. The program, named “A Better Chance,” or the ABC Program, would feature daily real-time instruction by a licensed prekindergarten teacher, age-appropriate activities, and downloadable educational materials for parents and other caregivers. The real-time lessons would be available at least three times a day and would be posted online.
Online preschool has become a contentious topic nationwide. Just recently, dozens of early childhood experts called for an end to the programs and warned they may do more harm than good. Experts cautioned that online learning programs can lead to overuse of screens, which can impact behavior, sleep, and social-emotional development. Although Mississippi has not adopted online preschool programs to the same extent as other states, during the 2015-16 school year, a group of children in Mississippi participated in a pilot program of the UPSTART kindergarten-readiness program. That program has been used across the nation, has received federal funding, and is used by 30 percent of Utah’s 4-year-olds.
• Assistant teachers would be required in every kindergarten through fourth grade classroom under House Bill 116. This bill would amend the state code that calls for a statewide system of assistant teachers in K-3 classrooms. But, if the bill becomes a law, it could be hard to find and retain enough assistant teachers. The average starting salary of an assistant teacher is only $12,500 under state law, far below the national median salary of $26,260.
• House Bill 187 would provide additional funding to enable school districts to employ a professional school counselor in every elementary school, with priority going to school districts with low accreditation levels. The bill states that these districts have the greatest need due to high incidences of violence, a large number of low-income students and high dropout rates. The proposed law also requires the state to continue the special appropriations until there is a school counselor in every elementary school or a counselor-to-student ratio of 1:500 or greater. Many students in Mississippi lack access to mental health care, which is something a counselor can often provide.
• Teaching home economics would be a requirement in districts rated D or F by the state under House Bill 16. This bill has been proposed each year for the last few years and would require schools to teach students how to balance a checkbook, manage debt, and complete a loan application, among other things.
• House Bill 89 would establish a scholarship program to recruit and educate individuals to teach English language learners, with a specific focus on enlisting as teachers Hispanic or Latino students currently enrolled in higher education programs.
• Senate Bill 2300 would require compulsory attendance in kindergarten. Statewide, kindergarteners have the lowest average daily attendance of students in grades K-8. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia require children to attend kindergarten.
• House Bill 314 would establish a universal prekindergarten program that would provide at least ten hours of pre-K instruction for all 4-year-old children in the state. Currently, Mississippi’s state-funded pre-K program has been nationally recognized for its quality, but serves only a small percentage of children.