Foundation says Miss. needs to improve education system

Published 8:19 pm Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A new report says that for Mississippi to improve its economy, the state needs to strengthen its education system, from preschool through college.

Rep. Cecil Brown, chairman of the state House Education Committee, says the report by the Southern Education Foundation reflects what many experts have been saying for years. Brown, D-Jackson, says the foundation’s recommendations help bolster the case for fully funding Mississippi’s public-school budget formula, an issue that’s already shaping up as one of the top battles for the 2007 legislative session.

“They don’t have an ax to grind in this thing, other than to tell the truth,” Brown said of the Atlanta-based foundation.

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The foundation’s report, released Monday, is called “Miles To Go Mississippi: Rebuilding Education — the Next Big Change.”

It says that in 1980, Mississippi’s per capita income was 69 percent of the national average. Today, the state’s per capital income is about 72 percent of the national average, putting Mississippi 49th in the national ranking.

“Mississippi’s economic gap means that on average, each person in the state had $9,750 less in income than the average American,” the report says.

Mississippi’s state economist, Phil Pepper, has told lawmakers that Mississippi could have trouble competing in the international economy because its workers generally are not as well educated as workers in many other states.

Republican Barbour has frequently said that Mississippi needs to improve all levels of education, from kindergarten through graduate school. In his budget for the coming year, Barbour recommends putting millions more dollars into elementary and secondary education. He says his plan would cover pay raises for teachers and provide an increase, but not full funding, for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which he has called an “artificial formula.”

MAEP is a complicated school funding formula that’s designed to give each district enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards. It was put into state law in 1997 and has been fully funded only once, during the election year of 2003.

Brown says the Democrat-controlled House will push to fully fund MAEP.

The Southern Education Foundation says that in Mississippi, there are wide gaps in national and state test scores between black and white students and between low-income and higher-income students.

“Mississippi must spend more time, attention and resources on students who need the most help,” foundation president Lynn Huntley said in a news release. “In a state educational system where half the students are children of color and two-thirds come from low-income families, African-American and low-income students must succeed if the state as a whole is going to improve education overall.”

The report recommends that Mississippi:

— Start and rapidly expand a state-supported pre-kindergarten program. The foundation says Mississippi is the only Southern state that has no state-supported, voluntary preschool programs.

— Provide “adequate education resources” for the neediest students at all levels.

— Strengthen middle schools and high schools to decrease dropout rates.

— Do more work to decrease education gaps by race and income.

“I think we’re working on all those things. It’s just going to cost money to do it,” Brown said.

State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds already is urging local districts to develop dropout prevention plans.

Barbour’s budget for the coming year includes money to develop an experimental program to help the parents of young children. At an early childhood educational conference last month, Barbour likened his proposed child care resource and referral system to the cooperative extension service — a way, he said, “to teach little children’s parents how to do things for themselves and for their children.”

“I don’t see us in Mississippi having a statewide, 4-year-old, state-funded pre-kindergarten program anytime in the near future,” Barbour said at the conference.

Steve Suitts, a Southern Education Foundation program coordinator, wrote in the Mississippi report that a state can compete in the world economy only if it increases the high school and college education of its residents.

“Regrettably, Mississippi has been falling behind the nation in educational attainment primarily because too many students are not school-ready and never catch up, too many students drop out of high school and, among those who finish high school, too few go on to college,” Suitts said.

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