Why change is still a long time coming in Mississippi education

For education advocates in Mississippi, it must be difficult to sit quietly and watch the tepid progress, or, as some put it last week, “small scale ideas” that are emerging in a state with a perpetual education crisis.

Children at a child care center in Mississippi. (Photo by Kim Palmer)

After all, it’s been 30 years since the so-called “Christmas Miracle” — the historic December day when former Democratic Gov. William Winter convinced lawmakers in a special session to pass Mississippi’s $106 million Education Reform Act.

I listened to Winter’s fascinating reflections on that moment in history in this 2004 story on National Public Radio. Perhaps most astonishing was the timing. Mississippi had not yet embraced or come to terms with school desegregation, so there seemed little hope in getting it passed.

Yet pass it did, establishing statewide, publicly funded kindergarten and a compulsory school attendance law for the first time.

Former Secretary of State Dick Molpus, who was director of federal programs for Winter, noted at the time: “We broke the back of the status quo in this city forever.”

Crusading journalist Carl Rowan said the education act would “give the children of that state a more reasonable chance at a decent education and lift Mississippi out of the ignominy of being the worst-educated and most backward state in the union.”

Thirty years later, though, Mississippi remains the only state in the South without publicly funded pre-kindergarten. This year will be no different, according to the budget proposed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who wants to prioritize teacher merit pay, literacy and dropout prevention. The legislative session begins next month.

Former Mississippi Governor William Winter (Photo by Mississippi State University Libraries)

Bryant’s agenda does not satisfy Winter, who said last week that the state’s current leaders do not have the necessary political will to make far-reaching changes.

“I do think we have lost our momentum,” Winter said, in remarks quoted in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, during a forum to discuss the 30th anniversary of the act at Millsaps College. “We’ve lost that political will to do the hard things that must be done. They can’t be done without more investment in public education.”

Supporters of Bryant, though, may be equally frustrated, noted Clarion-Ledger columnist Sam R. Hall.

“As comparisons of the two were made, Bryant supporters said we’ve tried Winter’s way for 30 years, and we still have failing public schools,” Hall’s column noted.

Here at The Hechinger Report,  we are continuing to spend time examining education problems and potential solutions in Mississippi, which suffers from the highest rate of childhood poverty in the country. Students still post some of the lowest scores on standardized tests, and often must repeat kindergarten or first grade.

In 2011, the state’s fourth-graders were outperformed on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress by their peers in 44 states. In math, they finished second to last in the nation, ahead only of fourth-graders in the District of Columbia. Just 61 percent of Mississippi’s students graduate from high school on time—more than 10 percentage points below the national average.

Bryant’s budget does contain some education initiatives, including $3 million for what up until now has been a privately funded program called Building Blocks.

Molpus calls Bryant’s proposals—which will likely be discussed a great deal, along with a new push for charter school legislation — “baby steps.”

The Hechinger Report will be following what happens in next month’s legislative session, and hopes to speak to both the former and current governors and learn more. Columnist Hall is hopeful and believes that even Winter might be satisfied.

“If lawmakers work together and advance key provisions from both sides, then lawmakers could pass the first meaningful education reform this state has seen in 30 years,” Hall noted. “It could even eclipse the work done by Winter, something I’m sure he would welcome if it meant a better future for Mississippi.”

POSTED BY ON December 3, 2012