oxford native, state senator gray tollison passionate about education
POSTED ON MARCH 12, 2014
The window of Gray Tollison’s law office on North Lamar Blvd. overlooks the Lafayette County courthouse in the middle of the Oxford Square. It’s a beautiful sight, but the building does not quite stack up to where Tollison splits his time—the state capitol in Jackson.
Tollison has been in office as a senator for 19 years, representing the Lafayette County area and primarily focusing on the issue of education. Now the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, the Oxford High School graduate cites the community of his upbringing as a driving factor for his political focus.
“This community has always instilled in me the importance of getting a good education,” Tollison said. “I was interested in that and wanted to have input on the state level, so that’s when I ran for office.”
Presently, Mississippi’s legislature is coming to terms with longstanding insufficiencies in the state’s education system. Tollison sees this period of change as not only necessary, but urgent.
“In some areas of our state, children are being robbed of their future,” Tollison said. “That’s why we’ve got to act with urgency, because every year you aren’t reaching out to the child who is not getting an education or the opportunity for an education that they should have, they fall further and further behind.”
One of the Senate’s most recent actions on education was approving it’s own plan for a raise in teacher salary. This plan would give current teachers a $2,500 pay raise over two years, and would raise starting pay by 10 percent. This brings the base salary up from $30,390 to $34,390, before district supplements.
“I’m excited about that because we’re rewarding teachers who deserve this and, at the same time, trying to draw in young people and let them take a second look at going into this profession,” Tollison said of the teacher pay raise issue.
Attracting new teachers, according to Tollision, is a purpose toward which several legislative measures are striving. The Senate’s teacher pay raise plan goes along with Tollison’s proposal for a state teaching fellowship, also currently in the legislature.
“It’s just like Hugh Freeze does out here with the football players,” Tollison said. “He doesn’t sit around here and wait for people to show up on the football field; he actively recruits the best and the brightest. That’s what we need to be doing with our teachers.”
The program would begin with high school seniors, offering them tuition and an enhanced experience at a Mississippi public university, in exchange for teaching four years in any district in the state or three years in an area of teacher shortage.
Another of Tollison’s personal focuses is early education. During the 2013 legislative session, he helped pass the Early Learning Act, which funds 11 pre-K collaboratives across the state; and a third grade reading initiative, which prevents students from leaving the third grade without reaching a certain reading benchmark.
“If we’re ever going to stop the cycle of poverty through education, then we’ve got to start early and get those young people on the right track,” Tollison said.
Also in the works at the capitol is a new accountability model, which is used for giving school districts their A-F rating.
“The old system was heavy on measuring proficiency; this will be measuring not only proficiency, but growth,” Tollison said. “So, that’s a little more fair to those districts that may not have a high percentage of students that are proficient.”
Beyond the legislature, Tollison and others in Mississippi education have been defending the implementation of Common Core standards, which was approved by the state board of education almost four years ago.
Common Core defines a list of benchmarks that students should reach before advancing to the next grade lever. The opposition to Common Core says that the program will be intrusive in classrooms and hinder the teacher’s freedom in how to teach his or her students. Tollison however is supportive.
“My thought is that professionals from all across the country and educators got together and developed this list of what children should know,” Tollison said. “In Mississippi, I think it’s important for us to implement these because we need to raise the bar for student expectation.”
Tollison believes Common Core will more closely align Mississippi’s standards to higher standards. The existing gap can be seen in the comparison of state versus national test results. By state testing, roughly half of Mississippi’s third graders are reading on grade level, but according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as NAEP or the nation’s report card) only about 22 percent of third graders are meeting the standard.
“One math standard I use as an example is that a child in first grade, by the end of the year, should know how to tell time on a clock, whether it’s digital or analog,” Tollison said. “How you teach a child to tell time on an analog clock is up to the local school district. So, Oxford will decide on a set of books and curriculum for how they teach those standards and Lafayette will do it too, but it might be differently.”
The Common Core standards bring with them a new set of assessment tests to replace the existing MCT2 tests. Administering of these tests in New York, Kentucky, and Georgia resulted in 30 percent lower proficiency rates than those states had previously seen. Tollison does not expect any different in Mississippi, but believes it is a needed change.
“There’s going to be a shock to the system because these tests are going to be more difficult than what we’ve taken in the past, but I think it’s a step we need to take in the right direction,” Tollison said. “We need to raise our student expectation, and I’m confident that students will rise to the occasion.”
The Lafayette County school district is part of a field test of the Common Core assessment, along with several other districts across the state.
In the Oxford and Lafayette school districts, Tollison sees both existing success and ripe opportunity for improvement. In the near future, he hopes the districts will come together to facilitate an early learning collaborative, increase the availability of Advanced Placement classes, and fully embrace Common Core standards.
Tollison believe that all the work being done to revamp Mississippi’s education system boils down to one goal: providing a child a better opportunity for education. But the state must continue to try innovative, challenging solutions to get to that point.
“We are limited in the financial resources we have in this state, so we have to be smarter than any other state in the country in how we utilize these resources,” Tollison said.
Tollison believes high priority should be placed on education, not only because of its inherent importance, but also because of its effect on all of society.
“I always say look at Oxford and Lafayette County and see what a difference a good education system makes with economic development,” Tollison said. “If you focus on your schools, the other things will take care of themselves.”
– Grace Sullivan is a staff writer for HottyToddy.com and passionate about education reform.