Our view: Cause for optimism on the education front

January 24, 2013 9:55:22 AM



When Mississippi State and Ole Miss come together, it is not generally marked by a spirit of congeniality. 


Long and bitter rivals on the athletic fields, the two schools also compete for students and funding.  


But MSU and Ole Miss play well together in other, less-publicized arenas. 


There is no better example of that spirit of cooperation than this week's announcement that the state's two largest universities have joined forces to create a program designed to attract the state's best and brightest students into the field of education. 


The Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program, or MET, is a joint effort by the two schools' education departments. The program is funded by the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation in Jackson, which has provided almost $13 million for the program. 


The program seeks to increase interest in middle and high school teaching as a career for top incoming freshmen and community college transfer students by offering full scholarships -- books, tuition, fees, housing -- to attract top students to pursue teaching careers to help meet the needs of new Common Core standards introduced in Mississippi last fall. 


Each school hopes to recruit 20 students each year with the goal of producing up to 160 new teachers over a five-year period. In exchange for the free education, graduates will make a five-year commitment to teach in Mississippi after graduation, with a heavy emphasis on math and English, two particular areas of need. 


MET's first class will begin at the Oxford and Starkville campuses this fall. 


The announcement from the schools is but one of the great rumblings happening in Mississippi education these days.  


In his State of the State address this week, Gov. Phil Bryant said he wanted to make education a top priority, even though there seems to be little sentiment in the governor's office or state legislature to address the chronic underfunding. Mississippi schools have been under-funded by almost $1 billion over the past five years. This year, it is estimated that the state's schools will be under-funded by $260 million. 


In other areas, however, there is cause for optimism. Both the Senate and House have passed versions of charter school legislation. Although it will hardly produce a sweeping change in the educational landscape, charter schools do give parents whose children are trapped in some hopelessly under-performing schools a viable option. Charter schools are far from a panacea; many are unsuccessful. If the Legislature allows charter schools, it should structure the bill so only entities with a track record of success in lower-performing districts (as determined by a non-politicized entity) will be allowed to operate charter schools in the state. 


There is also a push for more early childhood education. Hopefully, that focus will grow to include a state-wide kindergarten program, too, although it is not yet a priority in Jackson. 


We also commend the Governor's stance on social promotion. Bryant is advocating that all third- and seventh-grade students be required to perform at grade level. Students who do not meet that standard will be required to spend a year working on those skills rather than simply being promoted to the next grade. 


It is difficult to predict how any of these efforts will turn out. Will that succeed at all? If so, to what degree?  


That success is not guaranteed should not be a reason not to keep trying, however. 


As Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, succinctly put it during the debate on the House charter school bill: "What will we do today that is different than yesterday that will put our children in a better place tomorrow?" 


Getting the right answer often depends on asking the right question. 


Finally, we are asking the right questions.