JACKSON, Mississippi — The steady erosion of the state Board of Education's authority was thrown into sharp relief last week, when Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves proposed bypassing the board to rewrite academic standards and Gov. Phil Bryant said lawmakers and the people — not the state superintendent of education or the board — are in charge of the state's school system.
Lawmakers and the governor have been nibbling away for years at the power of the board, created by voters in a 1982 amendment to the Mississippi Constitution.
Now, though, with state Superintendent Carey Wright steadfastly defending use of the Common Core State Standards, Mississippi could be drifting toward a minor constitutional crisis.
The amendment says it's the board's job to "formulate policies according to law" for the state Department of Education and the state's 146 school districts.
"There has to be some core constitutional authority that the board has," said state Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. "The reason we have the constitutional amendment in the first place is to keep the politicians from messing around in education according to the whim of the moment."
Before 1982, Mississippi's Board of Education consisted of an elected state superintendent, the attorney general and the secretary of state. Today's nine-member board consists of five members appointed by the governor, including one teacher and one administrator. The lieutenant governor and House speaker each get two appointments. The board now appoints a state superintendent.
Andy Mullins, a University of Mississippi professor, was the board's first legislative liaison, lobbying lawmakers to support board proposals for nine years.
Except for the two reserved spots, the amendment bars other board members from working in education, and Mullins said it was intended to be stocked with people from beyond government and education, "people who could provide the leadership." He said the first board, led by Jack Reed of Tupelo, would never have brooked the current level of outside intervention.
"It has really gone downhill in my opinion, with a lot of political interference," Mullins said.
Over the last two years alone:
— Lawmakers created a separate board to govern charter schools, though the Board of Education sought that responsibility.
— Some House members sought a third board to take over failing schools statewide and run them indefinitely.
— When lawmakers required all third-graders to read at a basic level before advancing to fourth grade, they created a "Reading Panel." Among other things it will recommend the passing score on the reading test. That six-member panel includes the chairmen of the House and Senate Education committees and a governor's appointee.
— When the Board of Education sought to take over Scott County schools, the governor balked until the board changed policy to allow high school sports and extracurricular activities to continue without limitation.
By comparison, the College Board running Mississippi's eight public universities seems less susceptible to political interference. When Bryant bawled out that board in 2013 for not supporting his plans to increase teacher qualifications, trustees basically shrugged off the diatribe. Mullins describes the College Board as "the political plum of all appointments" and trustees tend to be among Mississippi's most influential people, like retired BancorpSouth CEO Aubrey Patterson.
The majority of the state Board of Education is connected to education or politics. Though hard-working, none have the kind of power that accompanies Patterson's cold stare and dry wit.
"As the appointees to the state board have declined in their prestige and power and influence, the power of the board has also declined, and left a gap where the legislators, they feel like they have to fill it in," Mullins said.
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