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Legislative Breakfast: Education at top of ’14 agenda

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat —  Local legislators answered questions ranging from education to highways Monday morning during a breakfast sponsored by the Natchez-Adams Chamber of Commerce. Sen. Kelvin Butler, top left, Rep. Robert Johnson, right, and Rep. Sam Mims, left, attended the event at the Eola Hotel.
Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat —
Local legislators answered questions ranging from education to highways Monday morning during a breakfast sponsored by the Natchez-Adams Chamber of Commerce. Sen. Kelvin Butler, top left, Rep. Robert Johnson, right, and Rep. Sam Mims, left, attended the event at the Eola Hotel.

NATCHEZ — Area legislators agreed Monday the way Mississippi educates its children needs to change.

Lawmakers at a legislative breakfast at the Eola Hotel tackled several questions about education reform submitted by audience members.

When asked about progress on the implementation of Common Core standards, District 38 Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia, and District 94 Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, voiced their support of Common Core.

The standards, which Mississippi adopted in 2010, are a set of expectations 45 states have adopted that seek to outline what students should know by a certain grade level and implement those standards in all participating states. Mississippi opponents of Common Core have recently been pushing for a legislatively mandated end to the implementation of the standards.

Butler pointed to a recent survey that ranked Mississippi school performance last in the nation as a reason the education of the state’s children needs to change.

Butler alluded that a good education could keep Mississippi’s youth out of trouble with the law.

He said the state’s corrections budget has grown from $90 million to $361 million in less than 10 years.

“We have no problem funding jailhouses, but we don’t want to fund schoolhouses, and this is what you get,” he said. “Evidently, what we’re doing isn’t working … we need to give (Common Core) a chance and see what it does.”

Johnson said in order to compete on an international level in math and science, Mississippi must change the way it educates its children.

“The answer is not to not do anything,” he said. “We have to do something.”

The state department of education is moving forward with Common Core, and Johnson said he trusts the department is working to improve the state’s education system.

District 97 Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, did not voice support or opposition for Common Core, but said he has spent the past six months learning as much as he can about Common Core.

Mims said he is awaiting a report from an aide in Speaker of the House Philip Gunn’s office who has been assigned to specifically study Common Core.

Mims said he recently spent time talking about Common Core with his sister, who is a teacher, and said he is taking an objective approach to the issue.

Butler, Johnson and Mims supported a pay raise for teachers. The legislators said they were not sure how much the raise would be, but were optimistic it would happen in 2014.

The lawmakers were also asked whether there could be an increase in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which funds the state’s share of the basic needs of local school districts.

Johnson said there is a movement afoot to fund MAEP on the level it should be.

Mims said it would take $280 million to fully fund MAEP, which has only been done twice over the course of both Republicans and Democrats having control of the Legislature.

“I don’t see that happening in 2014,” he said.

When asked about an expansion of public school pre-kindergarten programs, Mims said he would oppose an expansion.

Expanding pre-K, Mims said, could eventually lead to students staying long hours at schools and having to be fed three meals a day.

“I believe our parents still have a role in our children’s educational lives,” he said.

Johnson agreed with Mims that an expansion could get out of control if not watched carefully, but said not all parents would take the initiative to educate their children.

“I think that would be wonderful if we lived in that kind of world,” Johnson said.

But that is not the reality for all children in Mississippi, Johnson said.

“We can’t make the parents learn, but we can get those kids early,” he said. “If we don’t … we’ll continue to spend more money on corrections than we will on education,” he said.

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