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Most initiatives of Quality Education Act still alive

A wide-ranging education initiative is making its way through the Legislature, and it’s being done without the news conferences and rallies often used to gin up support for school improvement plans.

Instead, education advocates are working behind the scenes, meeting with lawmakers to urge them to pass measures of the Mississippi Quality Education Act of 2008, the legislative proposal of the state Board of Education.

Though there’s no comprehensive bill for the package, various components are in several bills that have passed in the House or Senate.

Still alive are bills that would fund some pre-kindergarten programs, provide more money for students considered at risk of failure, appoint all school superintendents, provide a teacher pay increase, continue putting more money into the state’s high school redesign program and fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, an equity budget formula for the state’s school districts.

The only measure that’s dead is a proposal that would lower from 60 to 55 the percentage of votes needed to pass a school bond.

“This session, the Legislature is taking a very hard look at student achievement and school accountability,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of Parents’ Campaign, a nonprofit education advocacy group that is pushing the proposal.

On any given day, state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds, Loome and others are at the state Capitol trying to persuade lawmakers to support it. Meanwhile, many of the 40,000 parents involved with the campaign are calling their senators and representatives.

“We just let them stay home and do something they used to do at the Capitol,” Loome said.

Loome said legislation that favors the appointment of school district superintendents over elected superintendents is an example of accountability.

Lawmakers on Thursday were debating a Senate bill that had been amended in the House Education Committee. The amended bill would require all superintendents, appointed or elected, to be removed from the office if the district has low-performing schools for two consecutive years. If the superintendent is elected, his office converts to an appointed position.

Supporters say the bill addresses the problem of low-performing schools and the move to make all district superintendent positions appointed.

Critics say there’s no evidence that appointed superintendents are more effective than elected ones.

“It’s based on a fallacy,” said Rep. Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood. “Nothing has been shown that it’s going to improve the districts.”

Bounds said the state currently has 15 districts that meet the criteria in the bill. Of those, five have elected superintendents. He said appointing superintendents widens the field of candidates since some districts have difficulty finding someone willing to run for the office.

The state already holds teachers and students accountable, Bounds said, “the people we’re not holding accountable are school leaders.”

Ben E. Cox, the appointed superintendent of North Pike Consolidated School District and president-elect of the Mississippi Superintendents Association, said a lot of factors are tied to a district’s performance.

He said a superintendent who is hired in district with schools that are Level 1, the lowest rating, may need more than two years to improve the district. He also said districts that emphasizes character building, arts and physical education may change course and simply focus on standardized tests to ensure the rating is high.

“If they’re going to be pressured in that manner, that pressure will be relayed to principals at various schools and that’s going to be on the teachers,” said Cox, who does not have low-performing schools in his district.

“If you’re an administrator who has 18 or 20 years of experience, would you be willing to take a position where you may be out of a job in two years?” Cox asked. “Is that going to attract good administrators to districts that need the help the most?”

The bill passed the House Apportionment and Education committees on Thursday and moves to the full chamber for debate.

The bill is Senate Bill is 2149.