- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:

June 30

Greenwood (Mississippi) Commonwealth on test cheats:

Mississippi’s Department of Education has been negligent in cracking down on the cheating that it knows is occurring on state-mandated tests.

It makes plenty of excuses for its laxity: lack of personnel, lack of expertise in investigating fraud, lack of funds to pay outside experts.

Its biggest shortage, though, is a lack of will.

The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson has been doing its own investigation to try to determine how widespread testing irregularities are in this state. The probe was stimulated by the newspaper’s recent reporting on suspected cheating at a Clarksdale elementary school. There, whistleblowers told the paper that students who as fifth-graders at Heidelberg Elementary School posted A-level scores on state tests could barely read and do math when tested a few months later at their new school. In light of that report, the Department of Education has belatedly launched its own investigation of Heidelberg, the results of which are pending.

As the Jackson newspaper showed in an extensive report Sunday, however, test scores at a lot more schools than Heidelberg look highly suspicious and are being barely addressed by the Department of Education.

The newspaper analyzed the results statewide from 2009 to 2013 on the Mississippi Curriculum Test, one of the major battery of tests by which schools and school districts are judged. The paper identified 44 schools in 34 districts, including 19 schools this past year, where the test scores improved beyond all statistical probability.

That number is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

The Department of Education’s approach to this problem has been almost laughable.

Last year, it flagged only seven schools - a dozen fewer than The Clarion-Ledger - for suspicious test scores, even though it had much more data to look at than the Jackson paper and had outside consultants helping ferret out the dubious results. The state investigated none of the seven for cheating. Instead it let the districts do their own internal probe. In six of the seven cases, the superintendents said everything was kosher. The state did no follow-up.

Such self-investigations are bound to be flawed. Why would a district come clean or even want to find out the truth if it believes the state is going to accept whatever the district says?

The Department of Education has hundreds of employees. If it doesn’t have any capable of investigating cheating, then it needs to reallocate its resources to develop that capability. Test results are worthless if they can’t be trusted.




June 28

Sun Herald, Biloxi, Mississippi, on marketing the coast:

The new executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau has the type of hands-on experience this market needs.

Renee Areng is now the assistant director of tourism for Visit Baton Rouge. She has also been the convention marketing manager at the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission,

By Aug. 1, she is expected to be on the Coast at the helm of the year-old regional tourism bureau.

And what a region she has to promote.

The gaming industry is about to expand into D’Iberville with the Scarlet Pearl Casino.

Eco-tourism is about to reach a new level with the construction of the $1.6 million Pascagoula River Audubon Center in downtown Moss Point.

The Coast’s heritage is about to be showcased in the soon-to-open Biloxi Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum.

New venues will showcase both local and touring bands, including Kress Live at Vieux Marche in Biloxi and the Great Lawn at Harrah’s Gulf Coast in Biloxi.

Areng is expected to immediately put these and other Coast assets to good use in attracting visitors to South Mississippi.

Rich Westfall, who chaired the committee that selected Areng, said she has a number of qualities that make her the right person for the job.

“I think it’s her years of experience, her leadership in the Baton Rouge market, her knowledge of destination marketing and her convention and visitors bureau experience,” he said. “In the long run, we felt that she has the tools and experience to take our destination to the next level.”

Part of reaching that next level will be marketing the Coast as a region that keeps getting better and better to visit.

Welcome to the Coast, Ms. Areng. We look forward to working with you to make South Mississippi a destination for all seasons.




July 1

Northeast Mississippi Journal, Tupelo, Mississippi, on university funding:

Mississippi’s public universities’ board of trustees voted Friday to seek a $76.3 million increase in state funding for the eight universities when the Legislature gathers in January 2015 to write the fiscal 2016 budget.

The request is a 10.2 percent increase, if granted, over the funding they will receive in the 2015 budget year, which begins today. Mississippi’s budget cycle runs from July 1 to June 30.

It sounds like a lot, but Mississippi’s universities still are recovering from years of state funding cuts and a dramatic decline in the percentage of their budgets that comes from the state.

The trustees, more widely called the College Board, have no control over the universities’ revenue except to approve tuition and fees increases, a frequent and necessary action.

The $76.3 million figure, board officials said, splits the difference between the low and high increases they had considered seeking.

Universities cite the need to increase faculty salaries, support research units that suffered during the recession, cover increases in financial aid and expand the University of Mississippi Medical Center teaching and operations.

“It’s an expression of our needs,” said Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds, but adding, ” .The truth of the matter is it’s not a full reflection of our needs.”

Of the total, $34 million would go into a formula that allocates money to universities based in part on how many credit hours students complete. The board also wants $8 million for a special projects. Plus, the trustees seek 8 percent increases for the agricultural research units of Mississippi State University and Alcorn State University, which had proposed 12 percent hikes.

Mississippi’s revenue on the report covering through May showed a 4.43 percent increase in the fiscal year to date, in total about $289 million above the total expected revenue through that date. A final accounting of revenue over budgeted costs has not been made.

The board’s plan is ambitious, but given the vital nature of higher education to Mississippi’s economic growth and retention of the state’s best young minds, the request should get a full and fair hearing.



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