The Mississippi Legislature has been busy making the Magnolia State one of the nation’s leaders in education reform.
Here are four of the top education reforms passed by the Legislature since 2012:
4. Elected superintendents
UNDER THE DOME: The Mississippi Legislature passed a bill to end the practice of elected superintendents in last year’s session. Photo by Steve Wilson
In 2016, the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill that will mandate all school district superintendents be appointed by their individual school districts by January 1, 2019. The problem with elected superintendents is that it constrained the pool of possible candidates by requiring them to live in the boundaries and run for the office.
The solution was such a no-brainer that the state’s two education policy organizations — the left-leaning Parents Campaign and right-leaning Empower Mississippi — agreed that it should pass. After the passage of the Mississippi law, there are only two states — Florida and Alabama — remaining that allow for the election of school superintendents.
The bill is even more important since Mississippi (69 elected superintendents) had more than either Florida (44) or Alabama (40).
3. Dyslexia Scholarship Program
3-D: The 3-D School, with locations in Petal and opening next year in Ocean Springs, helps children with dyslexia. Photo by Empower Mississippi
The Dyslexia Scholarship Program was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant in 2012 and made the Magnolia State the second state to provide a scholarship program for a specific disorder and the only state to provide one for dyslexia specifically. Eligible families receive an average of $4,980 to pay for care by dyslexia specialists at one of four participating schools in the state. The plan has expanded from 32 participants in 2012 to 159 students as of the 2016-2017 school year
The Legislature voted this past session to expand the program — which once ran out when a student completed the sixth grade — to cover grades 7 through 12.
2. Special Needs Bill
SIGNED INTO LAW: Gov. Phil Bryant puts his signature on a bill to provide a education scholarship program for children with special needs in 2015. Photo by Empower Mississippi
The old saying of “when at first you don’t succeed, try again” was prophetic for the Special Needs Scholarship Program. Despite the bill’s defeat in 2014, lawmakers brought it back up against massive opposition from anti-school choice groups such as the Parents Campaign and got it to Bryant’s desk in 2015.
The program provides parents of children with special needs a scholarship that they can use for tuition at a specialized school, books, software and other learning materials. The value of the scholarship will be $6,494 and it is now open to children who’ve had an IEP (Individual Education Program) assessment in the past five years. The program was limited to children with an IEP given within the school year, but Bryant signed into law a bill that expanded that to five years.
The program has proven popular for parents. The Mississippi Department of Education had to conduct a lottery on July 14 to fill the remaining 58 slots out of 437 scholarships, with 257 applicants on the waiting list.
1. Charter School Act
YELLOW SCARF: Gov. Phil Bryant, who signed the Charter School Act into law in 2013, speaks to the 2016 School Choice Week rally at the Capitol. Photo by Steve Wilson
In 2013, Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law the Charter School Act, which brought public charter schools to the state for the first time. Four schools have already opened in Jackson and they receive funds from the state and local property taxes like a normal public school, but are run outside of district administration according to their individual charters.
The Charter School Act is barely four years old and has already been expanded. Bryant signed Senate Bill 2161 into law in 2016. The law now allows students in C, D and F rated districts to cross district lines to attend a charter school, authorizes charter school employees to receive state benefits such as joining the Public Employees’ Retirement System, and enables charter operators to lease school buildings from districts at market value.
The state’s public charters are facing a serious threat to their continued existence. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit to cut off the funds for public charter schools and the battle in Hinds County Chancery Court will likely end soon after both the SPLC, the state and the Mississippi Justice Institute complete the filing of motions for judgement in the case.
Despite the lawsuit, the applications four more charter operators have been moved forward in the process to start new schools — the first outside of Jackson — to open in the 2018-2019 school year. All four will be subject to a final vote by the Charter School Authorizer Board in September.