Education

State education superintendent talks Coast schools, Trump, funding

jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said Monday some of the seeds she has helped plant to boost educational standards across the state have taken root, but more needs to be done.

Wright, who was touring highly rated Coast school districts Monday and Tuesday, said the state’s schools are showing progress “in nearly every category.” She said some Coast districts are also receiving attention from her colleagues on the national level.

We’ve come a long ways. We have a lot to be proud of. But there’s still a ways to go. That’s the challenge.

MDE State Superintendent Carey Wright

“We’ve come a long ways,” she said Monday during a meeting with the Sun Herald Editorial Board. “We have a lot to be proud of. But there’s still a ways to go. That’s the challenge.”

Education funding

Wright said she appreciates the debate over education funding, but deferred to legislators on its design.

“I think it’s always good to look at the formula,” she said. “I do think it’s kind of hard to put a finger on it since it hasn’t been fully funded.”

In discussions with legislators, she said, there’s been talk of using a “weighted” formula, which will allow additional funding for subgroups such as special education or English-learning students. She views that as positive.

“I think first a formula should be fair and equitable across the state,” she said. “We’re looking at providing the resources all children need. I think right now the formula doesn’t really address all those factors.”

MDE budget

Though the funding formula gets a lot of media attention, Wright said what her department does with its budget is often overlooked.

“We’ve spent $15 million on literacy,” she said. “We’ve spent $3 million annually on early-learning collaborations. We’ve done professional development across the state. We get money for reform.”

The state also has focused on third-grade students, spurred by Gov. Phil Bryant’s “reading gate” literacy measure, a minimum standard for students to advance to the fourth grade. The department deployed literacy coaches across the state who have helped lift scores in third- and fourth-grade classrooms.

Wright has overseen a shift to pre-K literacy programs, and she’d like to see more resources devoted to it. Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, and Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, worked together on a measure known as the Early Learning Collaborative Act, which became law in 2013. It’s the first time the state has funded pre-K education.

“We need it in every school. We know it’s effective,” Wright said.

She said her office will continue to support college readiness for students, teacher training and collaborations between schools and communities.

Coast school dominance

Wright said her office is implementing strategies that have worked in some of the top-graded Coast districts. The Long Beach, Ocean Springs, Jackson County and Pass Christian districts all earned A grades in the 2015-16 accountability ratings, four of 14 in the state to do so.

“I think here on the Coast you have a number of things that work well,” Wright said. “You have excellent superintendents. Those superintendents then hire excellent principals. They are very instructionally focused. They’re also very competitive, as you can tell.”

You have excellent superintendents. Those superintendents then hire excellent principals. They are very instructionally focused. They’re also very competitive, as you can tell.

MDE State Superintendent Carey Wright

Wright singled out Ocean Springs as a model. It implemented a National Math and Science grant in the 2012-13 school year, and has seen the qualifying scores in advanced-placement math and science exams increase by more than 2,100 percent.

“We have the highest graduation rate we’ve ever had,” Wright said. “We have a lower dropout rate. One of our major goals is to increase the number of AP students we have across the state.”

What will Trump do?

What President-elect Donald Trump and his pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, will do remains uncertain. DeVos has championed charter schools and voucher programs. The firm Mississippi legislators hired to review education funding, EdBuild, also is made up of organizations and people promoting charters schools.

“One thing I do know is that a lot of times when you say you’re going to implement W, X, Y, Z, it’s not as easy to actually do it once you’re in office,” Wright said.

She noted the state’s teachers and administrators are worn out from changes in testings and assessments.

“Our teachers have had a lot to deal with the last several years. I think they’re pretty tired of change,” she said.

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory

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