April 9, 2009
JACKSON -- Gov. Haley Barbour on Wednesday signed into law a bill lauded by the Department of Education as "the state''s most sweeping education reform in more than a decade."
"The Children First Act allows the state to step into troubled districts relatively early and begin their turnaround," Barbour said.
Senate Bill 2628 empowers the state Department of Education to remove local superintendents and school board members when their school districts fail state performance standards for two consecutive years.
The new law''s critics say it goes too far in forcing out superintendents and board members.
"In two years, that''s not much time," said Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus, one of only four lawmakers voting against the bill in the 174-member Legislature.
She said improving troubled school districts isn''t easy. "We can''t even deal with the teachers in that short of time," Harrison said.
However, state Education Superintendent Hank Bounds said students should not be "forced to be in a school that''s chronically failing."
"This new law will give us the confidence that our leaders are making the right choices that always put children first," Bounds said.
The Mississippi Department of Education estimates that about 10 percent of the state''s 152 school districts are failing.
Bounds said the bill "puts measures in place to do everything possible to keep schools from ever getting to that point. But it also says if you do ... and you stay there for two years, then that''s the line in the sand and that''s when there is a total removal of folks from the leadership."
The Mississippi Board of Education in March approved a new accountability rating system. Schools will receive their new ratings this autumn in the next school year. The accountability standards are based on achievement test scores, academic growth and graduation/dropout rates.
While the most dramatic feature of the new law is the removal of leaders in failing school districts taken over by the state, it also gives the Department of Education more tools to help make improvements and prevent such drastic action.
"If we never, ever took over another school district, this bill will be successful," said House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson.
Among other provisions in the Children First Act: