Education officials and lawmakers pointed to remediation costs for students in college Monday as a critical area to investigate as state officials look at details of education spending.
Lawmakers grilled representatives from state agencies responsible for all three levels of education – K-12, community colleges and Institutions of Higher Learning – about expenditures and posed ideas to reduce spending.
The session was part of the tax and budget working groups announced by the leadership earlier this summer. The working groups are designed to assess the state’s tax structure and 13 state agency budgets.
Those 13 budgets — which include K-12, community colleges and IHL – represent more than 90 percent of general fund equivalents, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has said.
“We want to see money going into the classroom. We believe that’s where the rubber meets the road,” House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said at the K-12 hearing. “Where are the areas we can trim back and redirect those dollars into the classroom?”
Lawmakers, led by Gunn, narrowed in on the $35 million colleges and universities spend annually on remediation for students that need extra help once they get to college.
Community colleges head Andrea Mayfield pointed to the “between 50 to 80 percent” of students who require remediation. Around 74 percent of full-time community college students had to take a remedial course during the 2015 fall semester, according to Kell Smith, spokesperson for the Mississippi Community College Board.
Mayfield suggested K-12 students need more options for dual enrollment and dual credit. She also suggested K-12 educators identify students earlier to determine their aptitude for career or college.
“It’s a matter of do we want to spend the money as a state once or twice for getting students prepared to go to work? You simply start testing students early enough in high school so we know where they are in terms of remediation or college level, and where they are in terms of their aptitude,” she told the group. “From there you need to at some point have them move forward into the academic track if that’s where they’re going or the career and technical education track.”
The group also discussed the state’s admission standards for colleges and universities, which Institutions of Higher Learning Commissioner Glenn Boyce said is “one of the lowest” set of standards in the nation.
Boyce said he and other university presidents have begun discussing the pros and cons of the current admission standards for both in and out of state students. One of the pros, he said, is the access Mississippi students have to higher education.
“We don’t want to cut that access off,” he said, a concept Mayfield echoed.
Legislators also questioned Education Department officials about an increase in funds spent on travel and contractual services.
Todd Ivey, the state education department’s chief financial officer, responded that the travel amount the group was referring to also included federal funds.
Chief Academic Officer Kim Benton pointed to two new programs that could have increased travel expenses – literacy and early childhood coaches. Literacy coaches, who work with third graders on literacy skills, are required by the passage of the 2013 Literacy-Based Promotion Act.
“The literacy coaches are out in the field across the state every single day, and quite honestly, it costs a good bit for their travel,” Benton said.
Ivey said most of the increase in contracts could be attributed to costs of assessment, including the Mississippi Assessment Program and ACT. The Education Department’s contract with Questar Assessment, Inc., which produces the Mississippi Assessment Program, is a 10-year, $122 million contract. The department paid ACT $1.3 million to administer that firm’s standardized college admission test to all 11th graders during the 2014-2015 school year.
The working group is asking all three agencies to provide an inventory of its programs and how they line up with the state’s missions and priorities, among other questions. The agencies also are being asked what they would cut if faced with another round of budget cuts and where they would spend extra dollars if given a 10 percent increase in funding.
The tax and budget groups will meet through November. The goal is to make final recommendations in time for the 2017 legislative session.