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Lawmakers cramming on education before next session

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers are doing homework before the 2013 session.

The House and Senate education committees met together yesterday at the Capitol to discuss elementary-school reading skills, teacher evaluations and charter schools.

House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said no bills have been filed, but the meeting provided a glimpse of what lawmakers might discuss once the three-month session starts in early January.

“Members can go ahead and start thinking about it,” Moore said during a break in the meeting that attracted dozens of parents, educators, tea party members and other spectators.

Some of the charter school supporters wore lapel stickers with “School Choice.”

Charters are public schools that are free of some state regulations. Supporters say charters would give flexibility for different academic approaches. Opponents worry charters would get too much attention and money, distracting people from efforts to improve all public schools.

Rachel Canter is executive director of Mississippi First, an education policy group that supports charter schools. She gave a detailed briefing about a proposed bill her group wants lawmakers to consider. It specifies that no private schools could be converted to public charter schools, and charters could not be religious schools.

The proposal would create a governing board for charter schools, separate from the existing state Board of Education. But, the proposal also specifies that the state Department of Education would have to provide assistance to charter schools, including applying for federal money that might be available.

Canter said that under the Mississippi First proposal, charter schools would essentially be neighborhood schools. Students in existing public school attendance zones would have the first opportunity to enroll in a charter school but would not be forced to attend.

“Local school districts cannot tell students they have to go to public charter schools,” Canter said.

Under the proposal, charter schools would have to serve special education students, she said. Some parents have said they fear charters will recruit the top academic achievers and overlook special education students.

“We are concerned charter schools for students with disabilities only will be established as an avenue to keep students with low-incidence disabilities from attending other established charter schools,” Mandy Rogers of Parents United Together, a group that advocates for special education students, said in a letter distributed to lawmakers yesterday.

“Parents, advocates and professionals have worked for over 35 years to end this type of segregation,” Rogers said. “We must not go back to the days of isolating students with significant disabilities and their families.”

Some lawmakers have said they believe the state needs a more thorough method of evaluating teachers. Daphne Buckley, deputy state superintendent of education, said the state Department of Education has been developing a system that puts new emphasis on students’ academic performance to measure how well teachers are doing their jobs.

A few districts in the state have started using the new teacher evaluation system in a pilot program. Buckley said all districts are supposed to use the new system by 2014-15.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant recently unveiled his 2013 education policy proposals, saying he wants more emphasis on ensuring children read at grade level by the end of third grade. Children who aren’t ready to advance to fourth grade would be held back and given extra help to improve their reading skills, he said.

Bryant has proposed spending $15 million for additional literacy training for elementary school teachers during the budget year that begins next July 1.

Mary Laura Bragg, national policy director for a Florida-based group called the Foundation for Excellence in Education, told lawmakers Wednesday about steps Florida has taken the past several years to ensure children are reading at the proper level or above by the end of third grade. Many children who are not proficient are held back for remediation, she said.

Mississippi lawmakers have said they might look to Florida as a model for how to improve reading in early grades.

Children’s literacy skills in Florida are screened during the first 30 days of each school year, starting in kindergarten, and parents are about the results, Bragg said.

“Parents have a right to know as early as possible if their children are struggling,” she said.



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