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Miss. Governor Seeks Preschools, Strong Attendance Laws

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In Mississippi, state law requires that children attend school until they are 14 years old. The law, however, provides no enforceable penalty against parents or guardians if a child does not attend school.

Last year, 15,000 students--many under the age of 14--abandoned the classroom, and 6,000 children who should have started first grade did not do so, according to state officials.

Among the children in Mississippi who do make it to first grade, 16 percent must repeat their first year of school. This, numerous observers believe, is at least partially traceable to the fact that Mississippi, unlike every other state, has no state-sponsored kindergarten.

For every 100 students who graduate from a Mississippi high school, 59 drop out--10 more per 100 than is the case in any other state. Thirty-five percent of those Mississippians who attempt to enlist in the military are rejected for "educational deficiencies," state officials say. The national average is 9 percent.

With this litany of dismal statistics to back him up, Gov. William F. Winter will go to the state legislature next month with a series of proposals for educational reform. Although cognizant of the need for changes in many areas of the state's educational system, he will concentrate on getting two measures through the legislature this year.

One would provide a state-sponsored kindergarten system; another would provide a compulsory-school-attendance law "with teeth," according to David Crews, a spokesman for the governor. The proposal will not raise the compulsory attendance age, he said.

Essential First Steps

The governor, Mr. Crews said, considers these two measures to be essential first steps in improving both Mississippi's educational system and the state's prospects for economic growth. Mississippi's budget picture is "pretty grim," Mr. Crews said, but it would be "false economy" not to provide funds for kindergarten and for the enforcement of a compulsory-attendance law.

A state-sponsored noncompulsory kindergarten system would cost Mississippi about $21 million for the first year. That figure includes one-time costs such as construction, Mr. Crews said. One possible means of funding it would be to raise the state's oil and gas severance tax from 6 percent to between 9 and 10 percent, Mr. Crews said.

If the experience of other Southern states holds true for Mississippi, however, the return on the investment would be substantial. Currently, the state spends $11 million each year to send children through first grade a second time. Other Southern states that have started state kindergarten systems have seen the number of first graders required to repeat the first grade cut in half.

Mr. Crews noted also that studies have shown that children who complete kindergarten are more likely to finish high school than those who do not.

The governor's proposals have the backing of Superintendent of Instruction Charles E. Holladay, as well as that of the Mississippi Association of Educators (mae) and the business community.

Kindergarten, Mr. Holladay said, makes a vital contribution to the quality of education. And he noted that although there is a compulsory-attendance law of sorts on the books, it can only be enforced through the state's youth courts. "What we really need is to get some teeth in the present law," he said.

A spokesman for the mae said that the state kindergarten proposal has been on the association's legislative agenda for the past 10 years. The mae, she said, voted in October to back the governor's proposals on these issues.

This is not Governor Winter's first attempt to initiate reform in Mississippi's education system, nor is he alone in seeking changes in a system that many observers agree could use some adjustments. During the 1980 session, the state legislature passed a resolution to establish a special committee on public-school finance and administration.

Specific Recommendations

The committee, composed of 12 legislators, eight citizens, and Mr. Holladay, who served as a nonvoting member, met over a six-month period.

By mid-December of last year, the group had compiled a report to the governor that included 23 specific recommendations. Twenty-two of the recommendations were provided in the form of legislative bills, which were submitted to the legislature. None of them, however, made it out of committee.

This year, by narrowing his focus to two ma-jor proposals, the governor hopes that the changes will have a better chance of passage. The governor believes that many of the proposals have merit, Mr. Crews said, but hopes that by identifying the "most vital," they will have a more realistic chance of succeeding.

But school-finance reform, one of the 22 issues addressed by the special committee but not acted upon by the legislature, remains a subject of considerable concern to many educators since the current system results in significant inequities in education funding from county to county.

'16th-Section' System

Most Mississippi school districts use the "16th-section" system, in which the revenues derived from every 16th section go to support education. Other local revenues are also used. The revenue generated by the sections varies widely from county to county, depending on the location and value of the land.

Operating at a considerable financial disadvantage are the "Chickasaw counties," a group of 22 counties in northeast Mississippi. These counties, which lie on lands that belonged originally to the Chickasaw Indians, were organized later than most others in the state. They do not use the 16th-section system, and hence receive fewer county funds than the other counties.

Using a financing formula provided by the Education Commission of the States, officials in both the governor's office and the state education department are considering various methods to equalize funding.

They hope, Mr. Holladay said, to develop a proposal for finance reform for this legislative session as well. The new formula could include several options for additional funding beyond the basic level at which all districts would participate, he said.

State education officials are also making other efforts to improve Mississippi's public-education system. In 1979, for instance, the department of education instituted the "Aim for Excellence" program, which is designed to help accredited schools improve their instructional efforts. Under the program, each accredited school must have a written description of its instructional program and a systematic plan for evaluation by Nov. 1, 1984.

Not all districts have completed their plans, but so far, the program seems to be exerting a positive influence, Mr. Holladay said. He noted also that in the past five years, the average scores of Mississippi students on statewide tests have risen 10 percentile points.

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