’82 act didn’t end education push

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Since the historic Education Reform Act of 1982 passed 30 years ago this week, there have been other major education proposals that met with varying degrees of legislative success.
None that passed was more significant than the Mississippi Adequate Education Program passed in 1997, even though it has been fully funded only twice since going into full effect in 2002.
The MAEP, passed over the veto of then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, sought to guarantee enough state funding to provide an “adequate education” for all children regardless of whether they lived in poor or prosperous school districts. The formula didn’t reduce funding to districts with strong local property tax bases, but it channeled more money to districts with fewer local tax resources. (See a detailed explanation of MAEP in the accompanying story.)
In 1992, the Legislature had enacted the Education Enhancement Act, a 1-cent sales tax that was designed to provide additional funds for education and to help reduce local property taxes.
Legislation in the early 1990s gave teachers health care coverage. Then in 2000, the Legislature passed a $392 million multi-year pay raise for teachers that made Mississippi at least competitive with the surrounding states.
These initiatives “were a continuing constructive process of sustaining the momentum that came out of the 1982 Education Reform Act,” said former Gov. William Winter, architect of the 1982 legislation. They were logical follow-ups with further state action….
“I think they are all essential blocks in our never-ending quest to bring education in Mississippi up to an acceptable level. And it is a never-ending quest.”
Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a chief MAEP architect while lieutenant governor, said focus put on education by such things as teacher pay raises, MAEP and others “encouraged teachers, administrators and students because it told them that the state believed education was important. It is important to let them know we are behind them.”
He said it is no coincidence that in the early 2000s after those efforts Mississippi experienced some it its biggest gains on national standardized tests.
“Those were some noble efforts,” said Senate President Pro Tem Terry Brown, R-Columbus, but he said they have led to few improvements and that more emphasis must be placed on the basics, such as ensuring a child can read on grade level by the third grade.
FACING OBSTACLES
Each of those efforts to deal with education faced its own obstacles.
After MAEP passed both houses of the Legislature, it was vetoed late at night by then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, but he took the unusual step of calling the Legislature back in special session for the opportunity to override his veto.
Then-state Sen. Alan Nunnelee, now 1st District U.S. congressman, was among the Republican legislators who bucked Fordice by supporting MAEP and voting to override his veto.
Like MAEP, which passed over a Fordice veto, so did the Education Enhancement Act – the 1-cent sales tax – five years earlier.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo, then a state senator, was among five of the nine Republicans in the 52-member chamber to vote to override the first Republican governor since the late 1800s.
“The bill passed because the people were for it,” Wicker said recently. “Paying for buildings, buses, and books – together with property tax relief – amounted to a powerful argument in favor of the one-cent increase.”
Wicker’s and Nunnelee’s examples of Republican senators voting against the position of a GOP governor were a marked difference from the later Republican administration of Gov. Haley Barbour, when lawmakers in his party almost always voted for the governor’s position on education funding issues.
TEACHER PAY
In the 2000 session, it looked as if the multi-year teacher pay raise that Musgrove campaigned on was going to die. Both Speaker Ford and then-Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who presided over the Senate, said the state could not afford the cost.
But, McCoy, speaking to a reporter one day, voiced his support for the legislation. After a story was written highlighting the support of McCoy, who was a key member of the House leadership, Senate leaders quickly introduced their own bill raising teacher salaries.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the pay raise legislation passed “because Ronnie Musgrove went from community to community building support for it,” but many believe McCoy’s comments played a part in spurring the Senate into action.
FALLING SHORT
Other efforts have not been as successful. In his term from 1988 to 1992, then-Gov. Ray Mabus was unsuccessful in his Better Education for Success Tomorrow (BEST) proposal that included early childhood education, merit pay raises for high-performing schools, a teacher pay raise and other items.
The legislation passed but was not funded. The Democratic governor wanted to fund the proposal with a statewide lottery, but he could not get it through the Legislature. He opposed a tax hike to pay for the proposal.
“You have to remember at that point and time we were in a recession,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who served as Mabus’ chief of staff. “He did not want to support a tax increase in the middle of a recession.”
Later, Fordice proposed PRIME that would allow residents to place proposals on the ballot if they were rejected by local school boards. He could not garner legislative support nor gather enough signatures on an initiative to place it on the general election ballot.
In more recent years, the Legislature passed and then-Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law the Children First Act, which made it easier for the state to take over chronically low-performing districts and remove staff and administration.
Meanwhile, the state Board of Education in the 1990s established Mississippi’s first school rating system, Levels 1 through 5, based on test scores and other criteria. The accountability system has been steadily strengthened and standards raised in recent years to more realistically reflect Mississippi schools’ standing in relation to their national counterparts. In 2012, the Legislature converted the performance system from terms like “Star,” “High-performing,” and “Low-Performing” to an A-F grading system.
The legislation being considered now, such as charter schools and scholarships for students to attend private school, could signal a new round of education proposals that could significantly change the current system. Most involved in those efforts say they still believe such items as adequate school funding are important even though education has not been fully funded since the 2007 session.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com

About this Series
THIS IS THE SECOND DAY of the first installment of “The State of Our Schools,” an ongoing Daily Journal series about Mississippi’s public schools, their performance and the factors that affect it, and the policy debate over how to improve the system. Sunday’s stories provided
an overview of the history leading up to this point, including passage of the historic Education Reform Act 30 years ago this week. Today’s stories focus on major education initiatives since then. Subsequent installment will appear at least monthly, beginning in January.