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Legislative working groups delve into education issues

WT24 Desk

JACKSON – As many as 70 percent of the students in math and science fields, excluding health care, are leaving the state within five years of graduating from a Mississippi university, according to online media reports.

Mississippi Higher Education Commissioner Glenn Boyce gave legislators that statistic Monday during a meeting of the working groups formed by House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, to look at the state’s spending and taxing policies.

Boyce was asked if the universities are taking steps to keep the students in Mississippi. Boyce said the universities are working to keep the best and brightest in the state. “We work hard to place our students, but our students need the opportunity for growth” and often those opportunities might be out of state, Boyce said.

Overall, he said between 40 percent and 45 percent of students find jobs outside the state within five years of graduating from a Mississippi school. The good thing is that often they come back, Boyce said, adding it appears to him Mississippians want to return home when given the opportunity.

The working groups will make recommendations to either the 2017 or 2018 legislative sessions on possible changes that Gunn and Reeves said would be designed to ensure more efficiency in state government. Gunn presided over the hearings Monday.

“We want as many dollars as possible going in the classroom,” Gunn said when talking to officials with the state Department of Education. “That is where the rubber meets the road.” Gunn said the working groups would look to eliminate education funding that does not benefit classroom instruction.

Legislators expressed concern with the large amount of money being spent by higher education, particularly the two-year community colleges, on remedial efforts. Gunn questioned why students who graduate from high school need remedial classes in college. Gunn and others said $30 million annually is being spent on remedial classes, though, it is not clear that dollar amount is a current one.

Kim Benton, the chief academic officer for the state Department of Education, said recent changes in state law requiring all high school juniors to take the ACT college entrance exam will highlight to school officials specific student deficiencies. Those deficiencies can be addressed during the students’ senior year.

But she said, “Many schools do struggle to find highly qualified, competent teachers,” compounding their efforts to have students college ready. Both Benton and state Community College Executive Director Andrea Mayfield spoke of the need for more cooperation. For instance, Mayfield said it could be made easier for high school students to take courses at community college either in person or online.

Benton said schools could turn to more online courses when they cannot find a qualified teacher. But Rep. Charles Young, D-Meridian, said additional money might be needed by the state to improve internet access at some rural school districts in order for them to participate in online courses.

Boyce said one reason for the high number of remedial courses is “our (college) admission standards are some of the lowest” in the nation. Boyce said he is in discussions with the university presidents about whether higher admissions standards should be put in place at some of the public universities.

The working groups also looked at transportation and other issues Monday. The legislative hearings will continue this week.

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