- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A bill that would tighten sanctions for schools that cheat on state tests passed what appeared to be its final hurdles Wednesday in the Mississippi House and Senate, but House members must return Thursday - after the Senate has already adjourned for the year - and decide whether to reconsider their vote.

Senate Bill 2258 would let the state Board of Education issue subpoenas to investigate cheating on standardized tests. It requires school principals to swear that tests were given following state rules, and requires principals to report all potential violations. Principals who lie can be charged with a felony, facing up to three years in prison and a fine of $15,000.

The measure would allow the board to revoke teaching licenses or discipline teachers for offenses including lying to say tests were given in accordance with state rules, or failing to report cheating to state officials.

The bill would let the state take over a district’s testing and, if an investigation finds problems, force a district to repay state costs from local funds. It also shields investigative documents from public records requests.

The legislation was proposed after a state investigation into cheating in the Clarksdale school district, where officials announced last August that they had found “reasonable cause” to believe employees broke security rules on state tests, improperly inflating test scores at the city’s Heidelberg Elementary. The department hired Utah-based Caveon to investigate, agreeing to pay up to $276,000. The state has yet to announce the results of that inquiry, and it’s not clear if criminal prosecutors are involved in the investigation.

Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, was the leading opponent Wednesday in the House, which voted 64-50 for a House-Senate compromise version.

“You cannot recruit good teachers if you’re putting them in the position to be felons, or putting the fear of being felons on them,” Bailey said.

House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, disagreed, saying lawmakers should be firm.

“You can tell the school districts we will not tolerate lying and cheating,” he said. “It is a crime and three years is a small sentence for people lying to the state of Mississippi.”

Moore said a ‘no’ vote would send the wrong message.

“If you think it’s OK for them to defraud the children of this state of a quality education, you go up there and you vote ‘no,’ vote red,” he said, pointing to the display board where House votes are registered, with green for “yes” and red for “no.”

Bailey and some other Democrats called for the House to reconsider its decision, forcing the lawmakers to return Thursday, though the Senate ended its 2015 work on Wednesday. Failing to address the Democrats’ request would mean the bill dies.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said it was more important to deter future cheating than to let the bill die and go home Wednesday.

“I think there’s critical importance and we don’t need to allow that to happen,” Gunn said.

If the House were to reverse itself and reject the bill the legislation would die since the Senate has adjourned.

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Online: Senate Bill 2258: https://bit.ly/1Dqgvfe

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

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