Punishing Children for the Sins of their Legislators | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Punishing Children for the Sins of their Legislators

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Rep. Bobby Moak

When children grow up, they reach a point where something just clicks. Things that were complex suddenly make perfect sense. Toddlers who could barely crawl can run at a dead sprint within a few days. Children who had difficulty reading the simplest picture books will suddenly jump to chapter books.

Sometimes, it takes a great teacher to make that connection happen. Sometimes it's a parent, a friend or just finding the right book to capture a student's attention. Usually it's a combination of all of these factors creating an environment where children motivate themselves to want to learn. If any ingredients are missing, the process slows to a crawl.

The Greenwood school district just announced they would lay off 25 teacher's assistants. This announcement comes at the same time that Mississippi's classroom overcrowding is getting worse. Personal instruction is even harder to find. The public-school classroom has reached a point of crisis, and our legislative leadership has decided to make the problem exponentially worse.

This year, Gov. Phil Bryant pushed for a "3rd grade reading gate." It is an accountability measure that holds children back a grade if they fail to adequately learn to read. Like a lot of the grand education plans of this administration, it sounds good on paper, but if they took the time to read their own talking points, they might figure out that it's going to be a disaster.

Gov. Bryant based this plan on a highly successful 3rd grade reading gate program implemented in Florida. However, there is a stark contrast in the current educational climates of these states: Florida invests more than a billion dollars in a pre-k program that ensures each child has all of the resources necessary to achieve proficient literacy.

Our governor, on the other hand, opposes funding for a similar program. We spend 3 cents on preschool for every dollar Florida spends. This pays for fewer than 50 literacy coaches to help nearly 40,000 third graders in the state. To make matters worse, Gov. Bryant and the legislative leadership refuse to fund MAEP which funds the teacher assistants, which, in turn, help pre-k children learn to read, and schools like Greenwood and others have to lay off the very people who help our children learn to read before the 3rd grade.

Our children have been set up to fail, based largely on lack of funding, a stalwart position of the Bryant administration. To make the problem worse, we will now be holding approximately 7,000 more children in the third grade, but the state budget provides no extra funds to accommodate such a severe logjam of students packing 3rd-grade classrooms.

Over the long term, significantly more children will be in K-12 school for 14 years, instead of 13. Schools that have been strapped under years of underfunding will now be forced to stretch budgets even thinner to accommodate an extra year of schooling for about 18 percent of Mississippi students.

This administration thought this would be a good way to continue their assault on Mississippi education by "holding teachers accountable." But it's our children that must pay the price for the Legislature's hostile relationship with education.

This poorly planned law asks 9-year-old children to fix a problem the governor and our legislative leadership can't seem to comprehend. Holding children back and creating an unfunded mandate for public schools in Mississippi isn't the answer.

Perhaps it is time for the voters of our state to hold the governor and legislative leadership accountable for creating rules that set our children up to fail. The reading gate for the Legislature should start with the writing on the wall: fully fund our schools.

Rep. Bobby Moak, a Democrat from Bogue Chitto, is the minority leader of the Mississippi House of Representatives.

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