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Auditor says schools breaking law with textbook policy

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Mississippi school systems are routinely violating a state law that says they have to issue a textbook to every student to take home, the state auditor says.

Stacey Pickering said that many districts are only buying enough books for a set to keep in each classroom, which may mean a student can’t take a book home to study. Others are relying on photocopied material, or even in some cases using state-issued sample tests for their main instructional material.

“From our standpoint, what we have found is the vast majority of schools are not compliant with state law,” Pickering said.

For some districts, the problems stem from bad record-keeping or lack of money. But other districts say that in many classes, they’re abandoning the traditional textbook. For example, in lower grades, most districts reviewed by Pickering’s office use “consumables,” soft-bound books that may have worksheets that can be torn out. Many teachers now use a combination of resources including online programs.

Pickering said he wants to meet with school leaders to discuss possible changes to the law.

“If our audits prove districts are not in compliance with the law, I think the question is, is the law reasonable?”

An Associated Press review of 35 compliance audits conducted during the 2012-2013 school year found that more than 19,000 students didn’t have books assigned. Typically, about two-thirds of students sampled in each of those 35 districts didn’t have a book of their own.

In some cases, judging from districts’ responses, it may have been a problem of record-keeping, with teachers just having failed to fill out lists showing what books were assigned to what students. For example, the Jackson County school district responded that students at St. Martin North Elementary and Vancleave Lower Elementary each get reading and math books, and it would keep better records.

Sometimes, what’s going on appears to be a true lack of books. Hinds Agricultural High School says it didn’t buy books for each student “because of a lack of funds.” The Jefferson Davis County district ordered more than $22,000 in new books after the auditor visited, according to invoices sent to Pickering’s office.

The Mississippi Department of Education requires that districts spend at least $20 a year on books for each child, but that’s far from enough. Just one consumable first-grade math book ordered by Jefferson Davis County costs $31.50. Traditional hardcover books can cost $60 to $80 apiece, school officials say.

Sam Atkinson, director of performance auditing for Pickering’s office, noted that lawmakers recently haven’t mandated districts spend specific amounts on textbooks, instead giving them “lump sum” budgeting authority to spend as they please.

“Some districts have told us that since they did away with line items for textbooks, they don’t have any money for textbooks,” she said. “That’s kind of disconcerting since they asked for the lump sum.”

But there’s also a clash of instructional philosophies. For example, in DeSoto County — Mississippi’s largest school district — school leaders abandoned traditional readers in lower grades, instead building libraries for students. Readers are materials that contain brief chapters meant to teach children to read.

Jennifer Weeks, an assistant superintendent in DeSoto, said readers may only provide 10 minutes of reading per day. She said students may need as much as 90 minutes a day, especially if they’re having trouble.

“Our students all have access to books,” Weeks said. “They are able to take those books home and use them.”

But individual books are not assigned to individual students, which the auditor’s office interprets as violating state law.

Weeks said DeSoto didn’t issue math textbooks last year for fourth- and fifth-graders because it couldn’t find books meeting Mississippi’s new Common Core state standards. That inability to find books aligned with changing state requirements is a common explanation from districts that lack books. In DeSoto, at least, that problem has eased. Weeks said fourth- and fifth-graders will have new math textbooks this year.

Other districts rely more and more on the Internet.

“There are so many online reading programs and online math programs and online science programs. There’s a lot of supplementation,” said Pascagoula Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich. “We’re just at crossroads with technology.”

Though 80 percent of students in the Pascagoula district are eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches, a common measure of poverty, Rodolfich said he believes most students have access to a computer at home. If not, he says school computer labs are open before and after school. Students can also access computers at libraries and branches of the Boys Club and Girls Club, he said.

But the auditor’s office says that if a district isn’t providing an electronic device and appropriate software, some students may miss out.

“Even if you say we’re going to use these online tools, you have to find an alternative to make sure they get those tools,” audit project manager Keyla Bradford said.

Clinton is issuing tablet or laptop computers to all students this fall. Assistant Superintendent Tim Martin said students will still have textbooks, although the district has bought used copies in some cases to cut costs. The idea, though, is to combine the textbook with other resources on the computer.

“Just because we’re giving every student a device, don’t think there won’t be a textbook,” Martin said. “Don’t think there won’t be assignments from the textbook.”



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