Mississippi Makes Up Its Mind
By Rims Barber
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1983, pp. 8-9
The passage of an educational reform package by the Mississippi Legislature was an important victory for public involvement. Pushing the legislature to act on the education issue involved a broader based public effort than any other issue in recent Mississippi history. Such interest and effort made the legislature accountable, forcing it to act in ways that were beyond its normal, narrow political framework.
Governor William Winter focused the issues in a manner that captured the public. He developed a campaign that led people to demand reforms in education because they were right and good and possible.
In his state of the state message at the opening of the January 1982 legislative session, Governor Winter had called for creation of kindergartens, a state lay board of education and passage of compulsory attendance legislation. Exhorting the legislature to help move Mississippi out of fiftieth place among the states in per capita income, Winter called for a long term commitment to improve education. To pay for the program, he asked for an educational trust fund generated from the revenues of an increase in the oil and gas severance tax. “It’s boat rocking time,” he said, trying to motivate legislators to vote for a significant change. But the legislature only gave its approval to the state lay board, placing it on the November ballot as a constitutional amendment.
Kindergarten died on the house calendar in February 1982 as Speaker Buddie Newman adjourned the house even as members tried to gain consideration of the measure. Black legislator Leslie King condemned Newman’s action in “ignoring the will of this body.” Efforts to revive the kindergarten measure failed and the trust fund was defeated. Representative Robert Clark, chairman of the education committee, said that many representatives “turned chicken” on the issue of kindergarten when the money proposal was before them. He predicted that “this is the one last chance we’ll have in the next six or eight years to enact kindergartens.”
Clark would be proved wrong, but only after an intense public campaign initiated by Governor Winter which led to the special session in December. In the fall, the governor conducted a nine-city campaign of education forums, emphasizing the need for Mississippi to make a breakthrough in education or forever be lost in last place among the states. Almost twenty thousand people attended those forums, building support that helped pass the constitutional referendum, finally creating the state lay board of education and setting the base of support for the education reform package voted on in the special session.
People began to work for the changes they believed would bring about progress for all Mississippians. To accomplish this, they overcame their sense of narrow self-interest and saw the interdependence of all the state’s people.
The governor moved Theodore “The Man” Bilbo’s statue, one symbol of the past, out of the main corridor of the capitol building and the people helped move the legislature beyond the vestiges of that past.
Much of the recent history of Mississippi school matters has been tied up in the racial dilemma. In the 1950’s, the state responded to the Brown decision with a series of changes in the laws that were an attempt to stave off the potential effects of desegregation. In the 1960’s, school desegregation came and along with it the private school movement.
Following legal desegregation of the public schools, segregated academies blossomed across the state, leaving a fourth of Mississippi’s school districts virtually all-black (although whites still controlled the school boards). Several districts lowered their local tax support of public schools. Half the black principals in the state lost their leadership positions. With significant numbers of voters no longer committed to the public schools, many legislators faltered in their support for public education. Resolutions were passed calling for an end to busing. A try at enacting kindergarten in 1972 failed in the face of race-baiting opposition.
Throughout this period, many educational leaders continued to call for reform. In 1967, Mississippi commissioned a significant study which concluded that “our children are not receiving as effective an education as they need . . . our economic development goals cannot be achieved unless we greatly strengthen our total educational system.” Despite this and similar urgings
that Mississippi make educational reforms, there was a hardening of the lines of resistance that left the studies collecting dust.
Finally, in the 1980s, time had healed some of the old wounds and the governor seized the opportunity. The victory came in spite of last minute rantings on the floor of the legislature against the evils of integrated schools and the clear attempt to make “those people” pay for “their education.”
A price was exacted by those good ol’ boys who would put off the day when all Mississippians can reap the benefits of a healthy and common society. Compulsory attendance will only apply to six and seven year old children this year. Kindergartens will be delayed until 1986 and will stand repealed in 1990 unless the people maintain their pressure on the legislature. The taxes will fall more heavily on the poor and the middle classes than on the monied interests in the state.
In the end, the leadership of the legislative branch did not want the political heat that they felt would surely come if they had not passed the reform package. House leaders had been badly burned in the spring when their killing of kindergarten received national attention. ABC-TV’s program “20/20″ focused on Mississippi’s failure to place the education of children above special interests such as the oil and gas industry. The legislators” behavior also spurred political activity with the formation of a progressive political action committee (Mississippi First) which had the goal of “electing a better legislature.” At the fall education forums, Mississippi First asked people to sign “Yes, I’m tired of our legislature taking a last place approach to Mississippi’s future.”
The state’s press provided clear reporting and strong editorial support. For the week prior to the special session, the statewide newpapers ran a series on educational reform issues. During the session, the Jackson papers promoted passage of the package and editorially targeted legislators who did not support it.
The mechanism for significantly improving Mississippi’s educational system is now law. In November 1982, the state’s voters passed a constitutional amendment to replace the ex officio state school board with a new lay board of education in 1984. The Educational Reform Act contains a means of empowering the new board to make improvements in school curriculum, accreditation, teacher certification, professional development and to take a hard look at the need for school consolidation.
The Act also establishes an enforceable compulsory attendance law, kindergartens and teacher aides for the first three grades. This, with the improved program for vocational education passed last spring, should provide the framework for progress.
This is not to say that all the problems are solved. The new state board of education must have the vision, aggressiveness and independence to carry out the mission set forth in the new law. The people must apply their new found strength in holding the legislature accountable for the general welfare of the community to see that the reforms are implemented. There must be a fight on financing, for the law leaves a gap that must be filled. The kindergarten issue must finally be put to rest with the removal of the repeal provision.
In Mississippi, people who were never involved in politics are now involved. They can make the difference not only in improving our educational system but in areas of health and welfare and justice for all. We cannot live as a divided people, leaving one segment or another of our population behind. Perhaps, on this foundation, Mississippi is now ready to build.
- Features of the Educational Reform Act
- Kindergarten in all school districts by 1986, supported by forty million dollars annually
- Compulsory attendance beginning with ages six and seven in 1983 and adding one year until age fourteen
- Salary increases for teachers of one thousand dollars, taking Mississippi off the bottom rung of the teacher pay ladder
- A performance based school accreditation system
- A study to consider consolidating small schools and small districts
- A commission to set new teacher education and certification standards
- A program of professional development for school administrators
- Authority granted to the state lay board of education to compel compliance with the new standards
Rims Barber, a member of the Southern Regional Council, is project director for Childrens’ Defense Fund in Mississippi.