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Mississippi editorial roundup

December 27, 2018

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:

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Dec. 23

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal on a state program that provides scholarships for special needs students to attend non-public schools:

More accountability is needed in a state program that provides scholarships for special needs students to attend non-public schools.

That was the finding of a report from the state’s legislative oversight committee that was released this month. The 72-page report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, also raises concerns about whether the scholarship program is helping those who need it most.

The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act was passed in 2015 to give parents of special needs children more options to meet the specific needs of their children. Those who have been in the public school system within the past five years are eligible to receive the $6,500 scholarship if they withdraw from their public school and enroll in another institution.

During the 2018 fiscal year, 367 students participated in the Education Scholarship Account program and attended 96 nonpublic schools in Mississippi, Tennessee and online.

Oversight of those schools is alarmingly lacking. Schools do not have to apply to participate in the program or to meet any criteria, as they must do in other states with similar programs like Florida and Tennessee. In fact, a PEER survey of 33 participating schools found that six of them (or 18 percent) were not even aware they had enrolled a child with an Education Scholarship Account.

Furthermore, there are no requirements for participating schools to even monitor the ESA students’ progress in the meeting the goals spelled out in their IEPs, an individualized special education plan that all students participating in the program must have previously obtained from a public school. Thus, there is no oversight to ensure the new schools are providing the educational environment these students urgently need.

Meanwhile, the PEER report revealed that 48 percent of program participants in 2017 and 2018 were clustered in five public school districts — four in the metro Jackson area plus DeSoto County. Only 18 percent of program participants were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, while 59.5 percent of participants were white and 23.5 percent were black. The number of ESA recipients represented 0.6 percent of the total population of students with disabilities statewide.

The lack of participation by low-income, black and rural students is concerning. It casts serious doubt about whether the program is the most effective way for Mississippi to provide better educational outcomes for its special needs students.

And even for those who are enrolled, it’s impossible to know how well they are being served. Participating institutions must be held accountable, must be required to meet certain standards and must prove the students are making progress.

If taxpayer money is going to be spent on this program, there must be greater oversight to ensure the state’s return on its investment.

Online: http://www.djournal.com/

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Dec. 21

The Greenwood Commonwealth on life expectancy:

It’s hardly surprising that Americans who are prosperous and better educated tend to live longer than those who aren’t.

Being poor, unemployed and undereducated brings a lot of additional stress, a worse diet, more exposure to violence, less access to health care and less knowledge of how to take care of your body and avoid life-shortening illnesses. Plus poverty is associated with a high infant mortality rate, which also depresses average life expectancy rates.

But what’s so illustrative about an Associated?Press analysis of life expectancy in this country is how these variances can be pinpointed down to the neighborhood in which you are born.

The AP analyzed life expectancy and demographic data for nearly the entire country. It crunched the numbers on almost 66,000 census tracts — population blocks of roughly 4,000 people — and found a nearly 40-year variance between the highest (in North Carolina) and lowest (in Oklahoma) census tracts.

Although these two specific extremes are more than 1,000 miles apart, dramatic disparities can show up within a fraction of that distance. In New York City, for example, one neighborhood has a life expectancy of just 59 years, almost 20 years less than the national average. Drive 6 miles, though, and the life expectancy jumps to 94, 15 years more than the national average.

It would be great if you could just pick up and move and immediately change your life expectancy prospects. But it doesn’t work that way. Where you are born — that is, the background of your parents, their income and education level, the environment around you — often determines what kind of education you get, what kind of job you get, what kind of diet you have, what kind of bad habits you develop

It’s no coincidence, therefore, that Mississippi, chronically one of the poorest states in the nation, also has the nation’s shortest life expectancy on average at 74.9 years. In other words, if you are born in Mississippi, the numbers say to expect to live about four years less than everyone else.

That comparison just adds another to a long list of reasons for why Mississippi needs to focus on raising the education and income levels of its people. It will save them from an early death.

Online: http://www.gwcommonwealth.com/

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Dec. 21

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal on fully funding a possible teacher pay raise:

State lawmakers will soon return to Jackson for the 2019 Legislative session.

A possible teacher pay raise is the highest profile topic likely to be debated in a session that is expected to be overshadowed by the pending statewide elections next fall.

Given the large number of educators in Mississippi, it would seem advantageous for lawmakers to support the pay raise and use its momentum on the campaign trail.

However, there is another side to the teacher pay issue that will not get any attention on the campaign trail but that will have a huge impact on the state’s schools and districts.

That’s because if lawmakers pass a pay raise without also providing more funds to the state’s Public Employees Retirement System, school districts will be hit with an unfunded mandate.

Members of the PERS Board of Trustees have announced their intention to increase the employer contribution from 15.75 percent of payroll to 17.40 percent, starting July 1, as reported by Mississippi Today’s Bobby Harrison. That increase would cost school districts an additional $40 million, most of which would normally come out of state funds with a small portion coming from local funds.

But if the Legislature approves a teacher pay raise, but does not provide funds to cover the PERS increase, local school districts could fall further into a financial hole.

In his budget proposal, Gov. Phil Bryant has called for a $25 million pay raise, and also has included the PERS increase. The budget proposal released by legislative leaders included neither item, although it left room for both to be added later in the process.

We fully support a teacher pay raise, as Mississippi educators are among the lowest paid in the nation. And if the state wants to attract and retain the best and brightest to one of its most important professions, it must provide strong financial incentives.

But such a pay raise should also come with all of the money districts need to pay for it, including the pension funds. Lawmakers should not get credit for raising teacher pay, while at the same time forcing school districts to cut other programs to pay for it.

Given the fact that the school funding formula is underfunded nearly every year, districts do not need another unfunded mandate.

We call on lawmakers to support both a significant teacher pay raise that can truly make an impact and to appropriate all of the money to fund it.

Online: http://www.djournal.com/

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