A new wave of reform? 30 years after historic effort, state’s schools still lag

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

EDITORS’ NOTE: This is the first installment of 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. Today’s stories will provide an overview of the history leading up to this point, including passage of the historic Education Reform Act 30 years ago this week. Monday’s stories will focus on major education initiatives since then. Subsequent installments will appear at least monthly, beginning in January.

Thank God for Mississippi.
The phrase is a familiar one to residents of other states appreciative of the fact that Mississippi, and not their home, ranks at the top of so many bad lists and the bottom of so many good ones.
The Magnolia State ranks last in the United States in median household income, and worst in people living in poverty, obesity and teenage births. Many of those numbers are closely connected to its woeful educational statistics: last in average ACT scores, last in percentage of adults with a high school diploma and of those with a college degree.
“The most foundational element of success and liability in any society is education,” said Gov. Phil Bryant. “A people who lack education lack the tools and skills to navigate life and turn obstacles into opportunities.”
REFORM EFFORTS
Thirty years ago this week, former Gov. William Winter helped usher the passage of the Education Reform Act, sweeping legislation designed to help a public school system that had lost much public support during a divisive integration battle. Today, however, the state’s education system still ranks at or near the bottom of the country, and state leaders have again vowed to make education issues the focus of the upcoming Legislative session.
“We’ve got almost 50 school districts in our state rated D or F and several hundred schools with a D or F rating,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. “Our proficiency scores trail other states, and the U.S. trails other countries. We have real challenges.
“In the global economy, we are now competing with every country in the world. Doing nothing is not an option in our state.”
Their proposed solutions – including charter schools, scholarships for students in low-performing schools to attend private schools, merit pay for teachers and a requirement that all children read proficiently before being allowed to advance to third grade – have been criticized by some as not going far enough to attack the problem.
“We need to take giant steps in Mississippi to catch up,” said Dick Molpus, who served on Winter’s staff 30 years ago and later was secretary of state and a candidate for governor. “Instead, what we are seeing debated are baby steps, little timid steps.”
Struggles of Mississippi’s education system are also tangled in the state’s history, its generational poverty, segregationist past and high rates of teenage pregnancy and single-parent households. As leaders embark on efforts to improve that system, the Daily Journal will take a year-long look at the state of our public schools, including the complex fabric of such issues as poverty, race and family structure that are interconnected with education.
The series aims to be a comprehensive look at the myriad of deep issues affecting Mississippi’s schools with the hope of better informing the ongoing debate.
“We have greater needs socially, culturally, educationally and certainly economically and in a state that has fewer financial resources,” Winter said when asked about what makes education reform efforts in Mississippi unique.
That said, the former governor believes the situation is not without hope.
“I think Mississippi has now achieved a competitive place where we can do just about anything we want to do in terms of the investment we make in worthwhile programs, starting in education,” he said. “We can do whatever we want to put as our priority.”
DARKEST HOLE
Like other Southern states, Mississippi struggled to successfully assimilate its newest citizens during the days following the end of the Civil War.
However, the state with the highest percentage of black residents not only failed to adequately educate the newly freed slaves, but its leaders also actively opposed doing so.
James K. Vardaman, an ardent segregationist who served as Mississippi governor from 1904 to 1908 and was later a U.S. senator, claimed that education was a “positive unkindness” to black residents, according to James Silver’s 1964 book “Mississippi: The Closed Society.”
“It simply renders him unfit for the work which the white man has prescribed, and which he will be forced to perform,’” Vardaman said. “Why squander money on his education when the only effect is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook?’”
One year before the 1954 “Brown vs. Board of Education” Supreme Court decision that ordered school desegregation, a special Mississippi legislative committee commissioned a report intended to maintain separate but equal schools.
Instead, the report revealed an education system poorly educating almost everyone but especially African-Americans. It found that one black child in 40, or 2.5 percent, completed 12 years of school, compared to 25 percent of white students.
It also revealed that Mississippi provided $67 per year per child in school support, compared to $180 for the U.S. and $118 in the South. Per-pupil spending for black students trailed that for white students in every county.
The state spent the next decade-and-a-half fighting integration, and when that became inevitable in 1970, many whites fled the system for newly created private schools that some dubbed “segregation academies.”
Winter noted that when he took office in 1980, the morale of teachers, students and parents in the public school system was low.
“Public education became something of a political football – a contentious subject in many communities,” Winter said in an earlier interview. “Embracing public education was not a popular political issue.”
Winter said the most important legacy of the Education Reform Act was that it raised that morale and made education a political priority in the state.
GAINS EVIDENT
Compared to where Mississippi stood when the 1953 report was issued, the state’s schools have made great gains.
Mississippi Interim Superintendent Lynn House notes that fourth-grade students are now learning things older generations didn’t even cover in high school. She also stresses the higher accountability standards recently implemented by the state that make it more difficult for schools to receive high rankings.
Those standards and the state’s accountability model recently earned an A-plus when Education Week issued its annual Quality Counts Report Card. The state as a whole received a C-minus.
In a speech at the BancorpSouth Arena in October, internationally known education consultant Bill Daggett said Mississippi has done more than others to improve its accountability system.
“No state in the country has worked harder in the last seven years to raise standards than the state of Mississippi,” he said. “I have consistently been telling that to audiences around the country.”
Said House: “We have made progress. What we haven’t been able to do is catch up to others.”
Andy Mullins, who served as Winter’s special assistant 30 years ago, said the state also had much to overcome.
“We have to understand that we have only been working at this for 42 years since the integration of the 1970s,” Mullins said. “We have 200 years of slavery and another 100 years of second-class citizenship to overcome. In 42 years, we have been working hard at it. We have made a lot of progress. We had the deepest, darkest hole to crawl out of of any state. So reform is constant. It never ends.”
IMPACT OF POVERTY
The result of that deep, dark hole is years of generational poverty. Mississippi’s median household income of $38,718 trails the national average by more than $14,000. The state’s 21.6 percent of residents in poverty is more than 2.5 percentage points greater than any other state.
More than 30 percent of the state’s children live in poverty, a figure that also ranks worst in the nation. The next closest is New Mexico at 26.8 percent.
The result is a vicious cycle. Not only is the poverty a result of poor education, it is also a cause.
“If there is any correlation that is consistent in education, it is high poverty and low performance,” Mullins said.
Lavonda Witherspoon of Plantersville said many parents who live in poverty are intimidated by the school environment.
Witherspoon and her husband have three school-age children who have been honor roll students. But she has seen that getting parental involvement can be difficult in high-poverty schools like Verona, whether it is because parents are working multiple jobs or do not feel comfortable in a school-environment where they once struggled.
“Parents feel intimidated when they go to schools,” Witherspoon said. “Some people shy away and say I don’t want to feel dumb. Some of our parents are really young. There is a mother of a fifth-grader who had her child when she was 13. Even though she wants her child to do well, she feels intimidated.”
Add to that the challenges of working, single mothers struggling to find time to help their children do their homework.
The situation is not hopeless, educators say, but reforms must be mindful of addressing the needs of so many of the state’s poor.
“I think most of the things the Legislature, lieutenant governor and governor are trying to see addressed through reform are important, but frankly the biggest problem the state has is really the biggest education problem too and that is fighting poverty,” House said. “…The other thing I’ll mention and I sometimes feel it is the elephant in the room is the racial divide that still exists in our state.
“Even though I feel like we have made great strides, I think we are still struggling with trusting one another and being honest and open with one another about what the problems are.”
Longtime education advocate Jack Reed Sr. of Tupelo, who served as the first appointed chairman of the state Board of Education, agrees that the challenges can be addressed, but with deliberate effort.
“You can’t accept that as an excuse,” Reed said. “We need to do the best we can with what we have.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com