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Preschool bills clear committees in both state houses

JACKSON — Plans for Mississippi to fund voluntary preschool are sprinting out of committees.

House and Senate Education committees endorsed separate measures to set up classes for four-year-old children. The bills move to the full chambers for more debate.

Both House Bill 781 and Senate Bill 2395 call for local groups to set up consortiums between public schools, Head Start programs, private child care centers and nonprofit groups. The groups would apply for grants, matching them with local money.

State funding differs between the proposals. The House puts up $2 million, creating 1,000 spaces the first year. Money would be raised from private donations, with donors getting dollar-for-dollar tax credits.

The Senate puts up $6 million from regular state funds, creating 3,500 spaces the first year. Local groups could raise some donations using tax credits.

Mississippi is the only state in the South and one of only 11 nationwide with no state-funded preschool program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Lawmakers at least twice have put a preschool program into law, dating as far back as 1990, but have never funded it.

The Senate bill could face the same obstacles. Its sponsor, Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said he intends to use his post on the Senate Appropriations Committee to push for money.

“As long as I’m on appropriations, I’m going to make sure it continues to be funded,” Wiggins told Senate Education Committee members just before they endorsed the bill.

Senate committee members endorsed a version of Gov. Phil Bryant’s education reform package, but stripped out provisions for reading and math instruction and statewide open enrollment. Bryant called for helping young students erase reading deficiencies and not letting third- and seventh-graders move ahead until they test at a certain level for reading. He also wanted seventh-graders flunked if they don’t meet a math standard.

Instead, the Senate panel passed a bill by Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, which has much the same aim but only aims at third-grade reading levels.

House lawmakers passed a number of other bills, including:

— House Bill 779, which would require 5-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten.

— House Bill 1004, which would allow many or all of the state’s more than 60,000 special education students in public schools to use state money to attend private schools.

— House Bill 449, which would require all elected school superintendents to be appointed beginning in 2016.

— House Bill 518, which would require county supervisors or city boards to approve any property-tax increase requested by a local school board.

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