Michael Putnam, guest columnist 2/3/2015

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Dr. Michael Putnam Guest Columnist

Mississippi education and Kentucky education: walking a common path

Across the nation, most state legislatures, educational leaders, and their constituents are embroiled in adversarial debates over the continual loss of state education funding to school districts and the parallel advent of stiffening federal regulations.

As the Mississippi legislative session began, the Clarion Ledger emphasizes the point that state legislators have “picked sides” on what should be done with the education funding program dubbed MAEP as well as the decisions needing to be made about the current academic and assessment pieces − Common Core and PARRC.

As the stories about the impending political battles headlines our newspapers, the question of how and what other states are doing with these same political hot potatoes can no longer be a simple topic of conversation. Prudence dictates we study what others have done so not to fall down the same rabbit holes. 

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Every state in the Union has its own unique funding formula just for education, but due to the economic downturn beginning around 2008, state legislators across the nation have had to reduce state funding and rely more on federal funding to, at times, provide even the most basic of resources for their schools.  The recent glut of federal mandates leads some to believe the education of Mississippi’s children is in peril.

These debates have captured front page headlines – and rightfully so. One cannot help but see the similarities between two particular states albeit the situational circumstances of each state are years apart; and wonder why the leaders of Mississippi do not study and learn from the experiences of the Kentucky state legislature, from those who have already traversed this political, educational, and financial battleground so fraught with landmines.

Kentucky has the reputation for being one of the most progressive education states in the nation despite its glaring pockets of poverty. Mississippi is known not only for being one of the most conservative states in the Union, but also for its areas of intense poverty.

Whether we are discussing school finance, test scores, pedagogy, or educator evaluation, Kentucky faced these issues approximately six to ten years ahead of Mississippi. And, yet, Mississippi’s legislators and educational leaders are seemingly turning a blind eye to lessons learned elsewhere which could easily be used in their own great state for the betterment of today’s children and tomorrow’s leaders.

A small history lesson would help set the stage for more clarity. In one of the nation’s landmark education finance decisions, Kentucky’s entire educational system – pedagogy, evaluations, pay scales, and state funding – were found unconstitutional in Rose v. the Council for Better Education in 1989, and KERA (Kentucky Education Reform Act), their new educational system, was born in 1990.

Similarly, a few years later, in an uncharacteristically progressive move, Mississippi convened a commission whose productivity led to the creation of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) which was passed into law in 1994.  Since that time, the trajectories of each state have gone in vastly different directions.

Over the course of the past twenty years, Mississippi’s stance was to conservatively wait for other states to enact new initiatives as they came along (most were federal mandates) and learn from the other states’ successes and failures. Kentucky, on the other hand, aggressively embraced each initiative in hopes of immediate gains for their children.

Today, Kentucky has been using Common Core for over five years; and, yes, the first several years led to disastrous results in accountability standards. However, for the past two years, since moving to a different assessment system, Kentucky has made considerable gains in their accountability scores.

For grades 8 through 12, Kentucky has chosen to use assessment products delivered by the ACT company; for example, ACT is used for its end of course assessments. The scores for the ACT are used to calculate a portion of a school’s accountability, as well as assessing whether a child passed or failed the state-mandated test.

Other successful assessments used by Kentucky for grades 8 through 12 are the EXPLORE and PLAN which again are part of the ACT company. Unfortunately, the initial extreme costs involved with implementing Common Core, piloting assessments which resulted in plummeting scores, and responding to rigid state and federal accountability mandates brought Kentucky financially to the breaking point and forced state leaders to find creative solutions to garner tax money to support their education system. 

As stated earlier, what is happening in Kentucky has taken years of hard earned lessons for them to get where they are today. In terms of academics, they are seeing gains across the board. Kentucky children are receiving what many hail as a fore-runner of top-tier education, and Kentuckians still are not satisfied. But, they have almost broken the proverbial bank to get to where they are today.

Kentucky legislators are facing some of the same dilemma in their upcoming session which Mississippi legislators are now debating: how to adequately fund education and whether or not to stay with Common Core. What is the difference between the two states? Kentucky has tested and uncovered many new pedagogical ideas, accountability mandates, and rigorous assessments which have resulted in positive and immediate gains; and, if studied, could be a treasure trove of what a state could or should not do to enhance education for its own children.
Generally speaking, there are too many of Mississippi’s children who do not have the benefit of those resources necessary to prepare them for the global market they are about to enter. These resources do not come cheaply and should be attained after thoughtful and deliberate planning.
Mississippi has made small, incremental gains in educational improvement over the last decade through watching, studying, adapting what others have done, and applying fiscal prudence during a time of great economic downturn. That downturn has ended.

If our legislators are serious about educational improvement, then the state must provide more than “just enough” funds to acquire those resources needed to garner improvement. Prorating financial resources to school districts is no longer an option. Administering assessments − which many, including even the Governor, have criticized − is no longer an option.

There are enough mandates; it is time for action. In 1994, the Mississippi state legislature took an uncharacteristically progressive step; in 2015, it needs to take another, or our children will suffer educationally for generations to come.

(Editor’s note: Dr. Michael “Mickey” Putnam grew up in Batesville and is a graduate of South Panola High School.)