Stories illustrating financial challenges and the pressure to locate qualified teachers will once again draw headlines in education coverage this year.
Such narratives are expected in a state with long-standing regional teacher shortages and where lawmakers since 2009 have spent $1 billion less than what the state’s education funding formula calls for.
With a state task force exploring whether the Mississippi Department of Education should regulate standardized test prep and the pending release of school accountability grades, the 2019 school year will also bring a spate of new headlines.
Here are a few storylines to follow:
What happened to Mississippi’s Achievement School District?
Mississippi’s plan for improving low-performing districts has yet to take stride.
In 2017, the state submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Education detailing an achievement district that would absorb chronically failing districts with the end goal of improving academic results. The effort modeled after a Tennessee initiative was originally planned for operation starting in the 2019 school year.
Although two districts — Noxubee County Schools, which has since been taken over by the state under a separate law, and Humphreys County — were named for possible placement, state education officials have struggled to find a leader for the achievement district. That means Humphreys County will remain under local control for the near future. It also raises questions about the feasibility of the state’s master plan to aid struggling districts.
The future of Jackson Public Schools
The capital city’s schools inspired Gov. Phll Bryant to “try something new” last year, when the district was recommended for a state takeover. Instead of declaring the schools in a state of emergency, Bryant aligned with Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to create the “Better Together Commission” charged with creating a road map to turn around the struggling school district. The commission’s plan is expected by November.
In the interim, Jackson Public Schools is on tap for plenty of changes. School board members could select a new superintendent for the state’s second-largest school district this fall while Tuesday’s pending school bond referendum could provide the district with needed funds for maintenance and the construction of science laboratories.
Educators know to keep their fingers crossed during October. The month has become synonymous with the state resetting the A-F accountability grading scale for schools and districts. Case in point: State education officials recommended recalibrating the scale in 2016 and 2017.
It’s a scenario that members of the state Commission on School Accreditation and the state Board of Education want to avoid this year. Districts and schools were given a waiver during last year’s reset allowing them to keep the highest grade they were able to achieve under the old baseline or new reset. This year’s grades will mark the first year without the waiver, and there’s concern some districts could drop a letter grade under the new scale.
The politics of state testing
The 10-year-old wracked with nerves. The teacher unable to cover new material after spring break. There’s no shortage of complaints surrounding the stress that accompanies preparing for and administering state tests in Mississippi, and a task force of educators, students and parents will spend much of 2018 evaluating what high stakes testing culture looks like in Mississippi’s 142 school districts.
How districts prepare for the end-of-year exams is not uniform, and key differences between school systems, such as access to technology, could make the group’s task of recommending best practices a challenge.
One more session before state elections
During the 2018 legislative session, the outcry from parents and educators prompted the House to pass an appropriations bill mandating that seniors be allowed to graduate regardless of their performance on a series of state tests administered to high schoolers. State Superintendent of Education of Carey Wright pushed back, countering that failing the assessment alone would not prevent a student from graduating provided they met alternate requirements.
Lawmakers’ attempts to curb what they viewed as punitive effects of the exams ultimately fizzled, but the issue could resurface during the 2019 session. With the session occurring in the aftermath of teacher walkouts in West Virginia and Oklahoma, lawmakers could see increased pressure from teacher advocacy groups to consider a teacher pay raise — the last one was in 2014 — or full funding of the state’s school funding formula.
The growth and performance of charter schools
With less than 1 percent of the state’s 477,000 public school students enrolled, Mississippi’s charter schools can seem like small players on the education scene, but the action occurring in the charter sector is noteworthy.
This school year has seen the opening of the state’s first rural charter school with the establishment of Clarksdale Collegiate in Clarksdale, while an operator running three schools in Jackson is seeking to open the state’s first charter high school.
Also, charter school backers and the Southern Poverty Law Center are waiting on a ruling from the state Supreme Court concerning the former’s constitutional challenge against the state’s charter school law.
A tougher bar for third-graders
Five years have passed since Bryant signed a law requiring third-graders to sit for a literacy exam before being promoted to the fourth grade. More than 90 percent of test takers passed the test last spring, but the state is raising the bar this year. Up until now, students who, according to the state’s own guidelines, typically struggled to read independently could pass the test.
While the new passing score is more in line with the law’s goal of ensuring the majority of children read on grade level by the end of the third grade, the change could mean in an increase in the number of retained students.
More: Noxubee starts school year under state control
More: What’s the latest with Jackson Public Schools?
More: MDE to review how much students test after backlash from parents, educators, lawmakers