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Quality Education Act centerpiece for number of legislative agendas

The Mississippi Department of Education has combined its legislative priorities for the 2008 session into an omnibus package called the Quality Education Act (QEA).

The package, whose total cost is $129.2 million, includes nine reforms. They are:

• Fully funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP)

• Restoring funds for school building repair and teacher supplies that have been diverted over the years

• Providing broader training for school board members

• Moving from elected to appointed superintendents

• Improving teacher pay to attract more qualified teachers

• Beginning a phase-in of early childhood education in Mississippi

• Decreasing the super-majority for school bond passage from 60% to 55%

• Continuing funding the high school redesign program to drive a more career-focused approach for students

• Providing additional funding for at-risk students, to address Mississippi’s high dropout rate.

Dr. Hank Bounds, state superintendent of education, focused on the dropout issue during a Mississippi Economic Council Web conference February 5.

“We’re at critical mass,” Bounds said.

The Department of Education will hold a Destination Graduation: Adult Summit February 28 that will gather folks from around the state to address dropouts in their communities. A similar event involving high school students from around the state was held January 15. Both are part of the Department of Education’s On the Bus campaign that seeks to reduce the state’s dropout rate.

“No other state is attacking this like we are,” Bounds said. “Nobody has been as aggressive. It’s a national issue. No community is exempt from it.”

Zero opportunities

Thirty years ago, Bounds said, a high school dropout could land a job that would pay enough to support a family. But with manufacturing jobs’ relocating overseas, that is no longer the case.

“Those opportunities are gone,” Bounds said.

The relationship between education and economic development is either strengthened or weakened depending on the percentage of a state’s population that obtains a high school diploma. Bounds said the latest data collected for the high school graduating class of 2006 reveals that 25% of students who entered the ninth grade in 2002 did not graduate on time or at all. He conceded that that number could be skewed because of students moving out of state or transferring to private schools. Nevertheless, he said, the number is outrageously high. And entrepreneurs are not immune to the aftermath.

“As a business owner, you can view public schools students two ways: as future employees and future consumers,” Bounds said, adding that high school dropouts, over their lifetime, earn approximately $300,000 less then high school graduates.

Priority issue

The Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) has installed the Quality Education Act as one of its legislative priorities for 2008.

“MEC strongly supports the initiative,” MEC president Blake Wilson said. “It’s a roadmap to success.’”

In the past week and a half, the House has passed portions of the act, including the teacher pay raises. The Senate later approved raises for teachers with at least 25 years of experience. The bill will likely be debated on the floor of both chambers and sent back to committees before the final version is passed and sent to Gov. Haley Barbour, whose budget proposal does fully fund MAEP.

Another component of the QEA Bounds emphasized is moving from elected to appointed superintendents.

“The debate on that is over,” he said, saying that out of 14,500 school districts in the country, only 130 of them still elect their superintendents.

Tough road

Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents’ Campaign, which advocates for better public schools, acknowledged the passage of all the components of the QEA would be nearly impossible this session.

“I feel very confident some of it will get passed this year. But we are eager to see it all passed eventually,” she said. “(The components) all build on one another. Isolate them, and they aren’t as effective.”

She pointed to two components of the QEA that need passage this year: the implementation of the pilot pre-kindergarten programs and the high school redesign.

“We know that when children come to kindergarten behind other children, they’re exponentially more likely to fail and drop out later,” Loome said, adding that future economic development will hinge on the skills students learn in high school. “If we can make our schools more relevant to the workplace, then we’re way ahead of the game.”

Wilson echoed Loome’s belief that the passage of all the components is a pipe dream for this legislative session. But he said the QEA is a long-term investment in Mississippi that will reap long-term benefits, comparing it to the highway program that was launched in 1987.

“That took Mississippi’s highway infrastructure from the worst in the nation to one of the best of the South,” Wilson said. “(The QEA) isn’t something that can be accomplished fast. In the business community we want quick results. But this has to be an investment.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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