Mississippi’s new superintendent of education, Tom Burnham, returns to the position he held for four years in 1990s with an even more impressive dossier of experience and perspective – and with broadly enthusiastic support from the public education community and citizens who work as volunteer leaders for public education.
Burnham, dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi, resumes leadership of the state department after also serving as a district superintendent in North Carolina, a bellwether state for education innovations and progress. He previously was superintendent of the Biloxi schools.
Two of the most prominent education advocacy executives in the state, Judy Rhodes of the 8,000-member teacher organization Mississippi Professional Educators, and Nancy Loome, head of the 50,000 member Parents’ Campaign, both praised Burnham’s selection and pledged their cooperation.
“I had the privilege of serving on Dr. Burnham’s staff at MDE and he is an effective leader. As he shared with board members during his interview, ‘It’s time we quit doing everything and start doing the things that research and good practice indicate are making the difference,’” said Rhodes, the former chief lobbyist for the department, and who is recognized as an authority on all aspects of school finance and funding.
Loome, a longtime former teacher in Clinton, said, “We at The Parents’ Campaign are delighted to welcome Dr. Burnham back into K-12 education, and we look forward to working with him to ensure that all Mississippi children have access to excellent public schools.”
The Mississippi Board of Education voted unanimously for Burnham from an applicant pool that trustee Claude Hartley, Tupelo, said had “several outstanding candidates.”
Neither the four finalists nor the full original list were revealed, but it is known that applicants came from Mississippi and several other states.
Hartley, an entrepreneur who is a 10-year board member, former chairman of the board,, past head of the Mississippi School Boards Association, and former chairman of the Tupelo Public School Board, said Burnham is the ideal applicant for the times.
“We could not have found a better candidate to become our leader in this recession with its financial difficulties, and even more important, we could not have found a more capable person to implement the new statewide ‘recovery district’ to lift low-performing schools,” Hartley said.
Hartley said the state, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also called the federal stimulus program, will have enough financial resources to fund the goals of the Children First Act, passed this year and signed by Gov. Barbour.
The law empowers the state – through the board – to restructure low-performing districts, fire underperforming employees and hire new teachers, principals and superintendents, replace school boards, and hold the new disricts accountable for achieving adequate academic levels.
Burnham strongly supported the idea of the Children First act, and he knows what must be done to implement it. He’s expected to move decisively to energize the necessary process.
“This is our best shot,” Hartley commented. “All the stars are aligned, and we are empowered to do what’s needed. I am talking about where the rubber meets the road.”
Burnham will be expected to provide guidance for achieving enough academic progress each year to successfully reapply for the next stage of federal funding, required under the congressional act.
All the education advocacy organizations and private-sector leaders must be prepared to stand behind the new leadership and the new accountability standards as Mississippi’s public education moves forward with greater rigor and much higher expectations of all students, teachers, administrators, and trustees.
Higher achievement is the only way we will learn enough to succeed. We have to move the needle on teaching and learning.
NEMS Daily Journal