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Mississippi school leader focuses on preschool, teacher help

September 17, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — State schools Superintendent Carey Wright focused her pitch to lawmakers Monday on more money for state-funded preschool and more ways to improve teaching and school leadership, barely glancing over the state’s underfunded school formula.

Wright asked lawmakers to provide more money for public-private preschool networks, coaches to improve reading instruction, a new statewide computer data system and efforts to help superintendents and principals. Those various proposed increases would cost about $11.5 million. She said that improving test scores and graduation rates show lawmakers are getting a good return on previous spending and should keep investing.

“It’s not just enough to ask for money,” Wright said. “The taxpayers need to know their money is well-invested.”

She only briefly mentioned the cost to fully-fund Mississippi’s K-12 funding formula, which would require a projected additional $250 million on top of the $2.2 billion the state is spending this year. Wright is required by law to ask for full funding, but the state Supreme Court has ruled lawmakers aren’t required to follow a law demanding they appropriate the full amount. Lawmakers considered scrapping the formula last year and replacing it with a different one that didn’t have such a funding guarantee, but ultimately abandoned the effort. Lawmakers have said they’re unlikely to revisit the issue in an election year, but could consider it again in the future.

More popular might be Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves call for a teacher pay increase, but it too was not discussed. Such a pay increase could cost more than $100 million when fully phased in, depending on the salary and benefit increases that lawmakers decide on.

Wright also defended her decision to abandon a $5.5 million federally-funded contract to create a new computer system to track special education plans for students. She said other states were experiencing similar problems making systems work that are designed by the same vendor. She said Mississippi hopes to use remaining money to find a workable solution, and said she doesn’t now anticipate having to repay $840,000 in federal money with state dollars.

Leaders from Mississippi’s public universities and community colleges didn’t appear before lawmakers, as they cut down hearings to only one day. The state’s 15 community colleges are asking for an additional $83 million, which would finance pay increases, technical programs and programs to aid high school dropouts and pay for other high school students to take community college classes. Mississippi’s eight public universities are asking for an additional $127 million, including another $10 million for student financial aid and another $42 million to pay operating expenses at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/By%20Jeff%20Amy .

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