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Mississippi To Mandate Mixed-Age Classrooms

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Mississippi would become the first state to mandate the use of ungraded or mixed-age classrooms in elementary schools, under bills approved by both chambers of that state's legislature.

The ungraded-primary provisions were among the most dramatic parts of sweeping education-reform bills passed by the House and Senate this month.

While differing in significant respects--notably over the source of funding for new initiatives--both bills are generally in accord with a reform plan proposed by Gov. Ray Mabus last fall.

"The Governor is very happy with both bills," said Kevin Vandenbroek, a spokesman for Mr. Mabus. "Both bills represent significant education reform and show the state's commitment to reinventing education.''

Mr. Mabus unveiled his three-year plan in November, with proposals to create financial incentives for schools and teachers, establish "lighthouse schools" that would serve as laboratories for experimentation, fund the purchasing of computers and other technology, and provide for capital improvements. (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1989.)

The Senate and House bills maintain most of the Governor's programs, but also add the ungraded-primary provisions and other reforms.

The bills are expected to go to conference this week.

Grades 1-3 Seen Affected

Early-childhood experts have in recent years increasingly promoted the use of ungraded primary classes, on the grounds that the practice enables students to develop at their own pace and helps curb ability tracking and grade retention. (See Education Week, Dec. 6, 1989.)

The House plan would go beyond most existing ungraded programs by requiring mixed-age classes in grades 1-8. The mandate would be phased in over time.

The Senate bill, however, would require ungraded programs only in grades 1-3.

The conference committee probably will adopt the more limited Senate provision, a House education aide predicted.

Policymakers in Kentucky and Florida also are considering similar proposals.

Funding Questions

Mr. Mabus originally proposed to obtain two-thirds of the funds needed to cover the estimated $500-million cost of his plan from growth in existing resources, with the remaining third to come from a new state lottery.

One of the Senate's first actions in its current session, however, was to defeat a bill that would have placed a constitutional amendment allowing a lottery before voters in a statewide referendum this spring.

The Senate then proceeded to approve its reform bill without a funding component. The estimated cost of the Senate bill is $382 million over three years.

Senate leaders planned to wait for the House to take the lead on the funding issue, an education aide said.

Last week, the House approved a $428-million reform package, drawn up by a select committee, that included one funding mecha4nism--the legalization and taxing of bingo and video poker, an electronic arcade game.

A House aide noted, however, that the projections for revenue generated by the bingo and poker measure may be too high, thus leaving funding for the programs "still a question we need to deal with."

Mr. Vandenbroek said that administration officials have not abandoned hope of a getting a lottery passed.

The Governor's main disappointment with the bills, Mr. Vandenbroek added, is the absence of adequate funding for school construction, air conditioning, and asbestos removal.

The House bill pared down Mr. Mabus's $300-million bond plan to just $25 million, which Mr. Vandenbroek said was inadequate.

The Senate is set to consider a separate bill that would fund capital improvements through an increase in the gross utilities tax.

Bills Compared

Over all, the House bill follows the Governor's plan more closely than does the Senate's.

But the House deleted $84 million proposed for teacher raises, opting instead to provide 100 percent of the cost of health insurance for all school employees.

Mr. Mabus's proposal to create a "Corporation for Educational Innovation," a private-sector panel responsible for overseeing reform plans, was severely undercut in the House bill and completely eliminated by the Senate. Critics have warned that the panel could undermine the authority of the state board of education.

The Senate bill includes several components not in the Governor's plan. It would mandate kindergarten attendance and require schools to evaluate K-6 students at the end of every semester, instead of every school year, to determine if they are ready to move ahead.

"The intent is to keep a child from having to repeat an entire grade," said a Senate aide.

The plan would provide a summer remediation session for children making unsatisfactory progress, including those at the kindergarten level.

The Senate amended the Governor's financial-incentive plan for staff and schools, lowering the individual bonuses instructional personnel would receive from $1,000 to $750.

The Senate bill also spells out what schools could use their incentive money for, rather than leaving it to the discretion of principals.

The House bill maintained the individual bonuses and financial rewards to schools, but softened Mr. Mabus's provisions calling for regulatory relief to high-performing schools.

The Senate also shifted a required functional-literacy examination from the 11th grade to the 9th grade.

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