By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
Today’s political interest in Mississippi education had its genesis in the fall and winter of 1982.
As former Gov. William Winter, members of his staff and a growing public coalition pushed for education reform, they saw the topic of improving Mississippi’s schools become a high political priority for the first time in the state’s history.
The result was the passage of the Education Reform Act 30 years ago this week, on Dec. 20, 1982, in a special legislative session called by Winter. The most sweeping education legislation in the state’s history, the law created public kindergartens, initiated a statewide reading aide program, evaluated schools based on performance, changed teacher certification and established mandatory attendance requirements, among other actions. It was paid for by $110 million in sales and income tax increases.
The law also elevated the state’s schools into the public consciousness.
“I think the most important result was not the act itself as much as building a constituency for education in this state, making it a top priority in political campaigns,” Winter said. “Almost without exception, every governor since then has included improving public education in Mississippi, whereas before it was scarcely mentioned.”
That includes current Gov. Phil Bryant, who recently unveiled an education agenda that includes a focus on literacy, merit pay for teachers and scholarships to private schools for students in low-performing public schools.
“That landmark piece of legislation marked a significant moment in Mississippi’s commitment to providing a high-quality public education to all our children,” Bryant said of the reform act. “But the task of reform is never done.”
That emphasis on education was not the case when Winter took office in 1980. One decade after school integration orders were enforced, statewide support for public education was flagging.
“When Governor Winter went into office in 1980, we had only had ten years of the massive desegregation order,” said Andy Mullins, who served as special assistant to Winter and is currently chief of staff to the University of Mississippi chancellor.
“Many communities in the state had abandoned their public schools. Segregation academies had sprung up. The morale of teachers and administrators was very low.”
Education, Mullins said, was hardly discussed by politicians. Even in legislative education committee meetings, the discussion was tepid.
The challenge for Winter and his young staff, whose members were mockingly derided by a key legislative opponent as the “Boys of Spring,” was getting the Legislature interested enough to pass reform.
After they failed to do so during the 1981 and ’82 regular sessions, they began to change their plan.
“We transformed our strategy,” said David Crews, who served as Winter’s press secretary and is now clerk of court for the U.S. District Court’s Northern Mississippi District. “Instead of relying on the milk of human kindness, we would play political hardball.
“The legislators could say no to Governor Winter. They could say no to his staff. They could not say no to their voters who might turn them out.”
Members of Winter’s staff offered to speak at any civic club that would have them during the spring and summer. They then held nine forums throughout the state in September and October. At each, Winter and members of his staff would speak for a period, and then those gathered would divide into various breakout sessions. When they did so, Winter and Mullins would meet separately with the legislators from that area.
“It was the public support that really did it,” said Jack Reed Sr., who chaired a Blue Ribbon Committee that was formed early during Winter’s term to develop education reform proposals.
The first forum was the one held in Oxford for the Northeast Mississippi region. Winter and his staff optimistically hoped for 300 attendees. They were greeted by more than 2,000.
“It energized the governor and it energized us,” Crews said. “It got us so much good coverage. It had a rippling effect.”
The movement to pass education reform took on the life of a political campaign, including radio and television spots. After an amendment in favor of an appointed lay state board of education was approved by voters in November, Winter decided to call a special session to focus on education reform.
Prior to that amendment, the state board consisted of three statewide officials: the state superintendent of education, the secretary of state and the attorney general. The criticism was that the two statewide officials rarely attended meetings or focused on education issues. Under the amendment, officials would appoint individuals interested in education who could focus on the job. The state superintendent would then be appointed by the board, instead of elected.
When the amendment passed with 219,973 votes for it and 203,005 against, Winter decided there was enough momentum to call a special session, which would force the Legislature to focus on one issue – education reform – instead of hiding behind committee deadlines.
During the session, the agenda for reform expanded. What had begun as a push for kindergartens and attendance laws was swept into a bill that also included many other elements.
The act’s passage drew Mississippi national acclaim. It preceded the passage of the 1983 Nation At Risk report that chronicled poor performance in American schools and called for states to make reforms. Mississippi was ahead of these reforms.
In fact, nationally syndicated columnist Carl Rowan called Mississippi’s act “the greatest piece of civil rights, national security and economic recovery legislation enacted this year.”
As many as 11 states called Winter and his staff for advice in passing their own reforms.
“Other governors turned to Mississippi and said, if y’all can do it, certainly we can do it,” Mullins said.
The act did not, however, elevate Mississippi’s education system above other states. The state still ranks at or near the bottom of the country in many statistics, such as the percentage of adults with high school degrees, the dropout rate and scores on national assessment tests.
Critics question how much impact the act truly accomplished. Crews argues, though, that the state would be even farther behind if it still didn’t have kindergarten or mandatory attendance laws.
“Think of how massive the gap would be without that,” he said. “We still have immense challenges but think how far we’ve come…Thirty years down the road, we need to be taking the next steps.”
Winter agrees that more education reform is needed.
“I think this is a critical time, just as critical as it was 30 years ago, to make the kind of investments and put the kind of emphasis on having a school system that is competitive with anything in the country,” he said.