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Lawmakers push forward Bryant school proposals

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The House Education Committee endorsed two bills that contain key parts of Republican Gov. Phil Bryant's education agenda Wednesday.

House Bill 906 would create tax credits for people who donate scholarships to students who attend private schools. Though critics have described the measure as a back-door way to create school vouchers, it attracted little Democratic opposition in committee.

The other measure, House Bill 890, would take a number of steps, including setting up stronger reading standards for students in kindergarten through third grade, raising requirements to major in education at state universities and setting up a pilot teacher merit-pay program.

Lawmakers stripped out provisions that would have allowed students to transfer to other districts or other schools in their home district.

"I think this should be a stand-alone issue," Rep. Brad Mayo, R-Oxford, who steered the bill through committee, said of the open enrollment plan.

The biggest part of House Bill 890, which Bryant has called Education Works, aims to improve reading and math achievement. It would require third-graders to read at a certain standard before moving to fourth grade. To help them get there, the measure calls for intensive reading instruction for children who fall behind in grades K-3. Bryant wants to spend $15 million on reading-intervention trainers. House members amended the bill to say it would take effect only if the money was included in the state budget.

The measure would also:

—Allow seventh-graders to move to eighth grade only if they meet certain standards in reading and math.

—Require high schools with graduation rates below 80 percent to submit plans to increase graduation rates.

—Require students to have a 3.0 grade point average and a 21 on the ACT college test to enter college schools of education.

—Offer education scholarships to students with high grades and ACT scores to become teachers in Mississippi.

—Create a pilot program to allow four districts to pay high-performing teachers above the current state salary schedule.

Tuesday, the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents endorsed Bryant's Education Works, saying school leaders "look forward to working with him in implementing a quality reading and math experience for every student we serve."

Outside groups were quick to attack the scholarship program.

"It's fewer resources available for children already in low-performing public schools," said Sara Welker, an analyst for the Mississippi Economic Policy Center.

The measure allows up to $10 million in dollar-for-dollar tax credits for people or companies that donate to a scholarship fund benefiting students whose families have incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level and students zoned for D- and F-rated schools. Those students could take the money and attend any private school in the state that met certain standards. Administration officials estimate $10 million would create close to 2,200 scholarships. The administration says more than 100,000 of Mississippi's 490,000 public school students would qualify.

Welker said 250 percent of poverty, which equals a yearly income of $57,625 for a family of four, is too high of a cap, and the state could end up paying for children whose families would send them to private schools anyway.

Administration officials expect a legal challenge if the bill passes. When Mississippi's constitution was rewritten in 1890, it banned state aid to religious schools. Such bans, aimed at subsidies to Catholic schools, exist today in 38 state charters, according to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Such provisions have been a legal obstacle to vouchers, but proponents of public money for private schools have evaded them elsewhere by offering tax credits.

Bryant administration officials have said they believe a previous court case allows Mississippi to aid students who attend private schools.

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Online:

House Bill 890: http://bit.ly/VoOiKI

House Bill 906: http://bit.ly/TZrdDf

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Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy

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