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Miss. Legislators Back Reform Bill, Fail To Resolve Funding

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The Mississippi legislature last week approved a measure that marks the second stage of education-reform efforts in the state, which in 1982 launched one of the first statewide school-improvement programs.

Before passing the bill, however, lawmakers agreed to reduce by more than half the spending called for in earlier versions of the plan, to a total of $182 million over three years. The savings were achieved by dropping proposed pay raises and free health-insurance benefits for teachers.

Moreover, legislators and Gov. Ray Mabus failed to resolve their dispute over the means of funding the bill's many new programs. As a result, Mr. Mabus is expected to call the legislature back sometime before July 1 for a special session to debate plans to finance the bill.

Legislative leaders and staff aides in the Governor's office last week said it was too early to tell what shape any funding plan would take.

Despite the continuing uncertainty over money, supporters praised the bill as a milestone for the state's education system.

Olon Ray, the Governor's education aide, called the bill "very innovative and very much a departure from tradition." When all the features of the bill are implemented--a process he said would take several years--Mississippi will have "a whole new kind of school system," he added.

Representative Jim Simpson,4chairman of the House education committee, said the "the totality of the law's approach to education is what I like best."

The bill includes provisions mandating or encouraging ungraded classes in elementary schools, adult-literacy programs, teachers' health insurance, increased parental involvement, use of technology in the classroom, and local decisionmaking.

Mr. Mabus described it as "an outstanding education-reform bill." Many of the programs in the law were first proposed by the Governor last November.

The bill easily won final approval in both the House and Senate April 1.

The final bill was a scaled-down version of measures passed by the two chambers in February. The House bill called for about $428 million in spending over three years; the estimated cost of the Senate's bill was $382 million. (See Education Week, Feb. 21, 1990.)

Throughout the debate over the reform bill, leaders of the legislative and executive branches have differed over ways to fund it.

Mr. Mabus has consistently opposed any tax increase. Instead, he called for creation of a state lottery to fund two-thirds of the $500-million cost of his original proposal.

But the state constitution prohibits lotteries. And although the House has voted on several occasions for a referendum on lifting8that ban, the Senate has steadfastly opposed the idea.

The Senate's bill originally called for an increase in the state sales tax. The House, meanwhile, suggested funding its bill with the proceeds from taxes on bingo and video poker, an electronic arcade game.

In the end, neither plan was adopted, and the bill's cost was reduced.

The bill contains neither a salary increase nor free health insurance for teachers--features that were part of different versions of the measure.

Under the bill as passed, however, teachers will be able to participate in the state's health-insurance plan. This could save individual teachers anywhere from $900 to $1,500 annually, according to Mr. Simpson.

Peggy Peterson, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said she was pleased with the "compromise package."

Over all, the bill will go a long way toward improving the educational system, she said, and will improve the state's image as "dead last as far as education goes."

"A lot of people think we're the 'Beverly Hillbillies,"' she said. "We really aren't quite that bad."

Key elements of the bill include:

A Lighthouse Schools Program to provide financial incentives and rewards to schools whose students show improved achievement. In some cases, the program waives certain state regulations.

An Impairment and Conservatorship Program, which requires schools that fail to meet certain minimum standards to submit a "detailed plan" to correct their faults. The state may appoint a temporary conservator if problems persist.

Ungraded classes, which will be implemented on a pilot basis for students now in grades 1 to 3.

Provisions that will make local decisionmaking in schools easier. Schools will be able to implement any new program or procedure not expressly prohibited by state law.

Promotion of increased parental involvement in schools, through an "Alliance for Families" program, which will work with community groups to discourage students from dropping out. Parents will also share responsibility when their children create disciplinary problems, for example by being forced to pay for vandalized property or to attend conferences with school officials.

Provision of early-childhood screening for 3- and 4-year-olds to test for developmental problems that may hinder their learning later on.

Adult-literacy classes in homes and workplaces.

Requirements that dropout- and failure-prevention programs be provided at every school and that driver's licenses be revoked for students who quit school before the age of 18.

The bill also authorizes a total of approximately $700 million in bond issues for capital improvements over the course of a decade.

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