Mullins Q&A: State still has obstacles to overcome

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Andy Mullins, who has been a leader in public education in Mississippi for more than 30 years, will retire at the end of this month from his current job as chief of staff to University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones.
Mullins has served as a special assistant to two governors and three state superintendents of education and has been a member of the Ole Miss administration since 1994. He co-founded the Mississippi Teacher Corps program and was a member of Gov. William Winter’s staff that helped usher the passing of the landmark 1982 Education Reform Act.
As Mullins nears his retirement, Daily Journal education reporter Chris Kieffer asked him to reflect on his career in education.

KIEFFER: I’ll start out with, being in your last days before your retirement, what are you reflecting on the most?
MULLINS: On my mind the most the last couple of weeks has been the things I’m going to miss, such as being in such a beautiful environment, the energy that comes from working on a college campus, I will miss that, even though I’m going to be in the school of education on a part-time basis. I’ll miss some of my close friends, close working friends, not seeing them on a daily basis.
But I also think about some of the things that I’ve done for a long time that I’m ready to give up, some of the administrative headaches. It is time. It is time for a change there.
I had a lot of conversations with some of my early students from back in the ’70s. They’ve all emailed me or went on Facebook and talked about some of the old days when I was 23 years old and teaching 17- and 18-year-olds. One of their comments was we had no idea you were that young. When we look back, we couldn’t believe, you were only five and six years older than we were. They’ve had some good conversations about that.

CK: Where do you hope your legacy is?
AM: One thing about my career is I’ve been extremely lucky that I’ve had some of the state’s most outstanding leaders that I’ve had the opportunity to associate with and work with: Governor William Winter, Chancellor Robert Khayat, you don’t get better leaders than that. Dan Jones, Gerald Turner. Dick Boyd, Tom Burnham.
I love the state of Mississippi. I love it despite its many foibles and sometimes it is difficult to stay in the state when you say, ‘Oh man, did we do that?’ But William Faulkner says that you love despite, not because of and I love Mississippi despite so many of those things that other people find unattractive or too conservative. I just really enjoy Mississippi and all of its paradoxes and enigmatic behavior at times from political and other leaders. But I’ve enjoyed every aspect of it.
I’ve turned down various opportunities to leave because after working with Governor Winter, I said my career is trying to make changes in education that will benefit the students of Mississippi.

CK: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in improving education in Mississippi?
AM: Well, working for William Winter, I realized the devastating things that poverty does to children. That is our greatest hurdle to overcome. Unfortunately, many times in Mississippi when you mention poverty and its bad relationship with education, or the correlation between high poverty and low performance, people think you are using that as an excuse.
That is not what I’m saying at all. That is just explaining the deep, dark hole that Mississippi has been in for a long time. We kept one-third of our citizens as second-class citizens with inferior education. It takes a while to overcome that …
Now we have to overcome that. We have to come up with educational reform efforts all of the time. You can’t just do educational reform one minute and not continue it.
As I told Governor Bryant in New York at the Picnic in the Park, I was proud of him, even though I may have disagreed with some of his education proposals, I was proud of him for keeping education out front, for keeping education reform out front. That is one thing the Education Reform Act of 1982 did. It put education as a priority with not only state political leaders, but local political leaders. And it has been a top priority for the state of Mississippi since 1982, since it passed in that December Christmas miracle.
And so education reform is not something you do today that is over. It is something that takes constant care, constant work, constant putting it out front and dealing with it and wrestling with it. And in Mississippi, we have to deal with that poverty issue all of the time and the effect that it has on education. And we also have to deal with what Governor Winter clearly was right on and that is the issue of race. That is our legacy.

CK: How well are today’s education reform efforts mindful of those issues, poverty and race, and what would you like to see done differently?
AM: That is a good question, Chris. I think we have to always recognize that children from generational poverty have to be taught a different way from those who come from middle-class and upper-class families. They don’t get the support at home. They speak in some ways a different language, called the language of poverty. And there are just different nuances. For instance, if you grow up in a middle-class environment, when your parent is scolding you for something you did wrong, they will say, ‘Look me in the eye when I’m talking to you.’ Well, if you grow up in a generational poverty environment, it is confrontational when someone is getting on you to look them in the eye. And if teachers don’t know the difference, then you have a problem. When you tell a child from a poverty environment, ‘Look me in the eye when I’m talking to you,’ they immediately bow up. So there are a lot of those nuances that teachers need to understand based on the economic status of the children whom they teach.
And that is difficult. I’ve always said after reading and talking to Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, after I talked to him and read the book “Whatever it Takes,” I said if I had a magic wand, I would wave it across the school of education and put a wing on the back that says “Only those can enter here who are willing to be trained to teach children from generational poverty.” And I would pay for their education, and I would give them more pay than those who teach in middle-class and upper-class environments.

CK: What other magic wands or other outside-the-box things would you like to inject into the system?
AM: Well, that is the main one. I guess more emphasis on the full development of the child as well. You have some really great athletes in some cases that come out of Mississippi schools, but can they read? If they don’t make the professional teams, and everyone knows the low percentage of those who do, then what happens to them? Is there nothing to fall back on once their athletic prowess no longer gets them a privileged position? What happens then? Once again that comes back to a poverty situation in a lot of cases, but not all cases.
There are schools that will make it easy for an athlete to move through the system without accomplishing the true academic reason they’re there.
So that is a tough one. I see more and more presidents of universities around the nation losing jobs because of athletics and the role that athletics plays in university settings and what will become of that? That is a concern. Our fascination, and I’m right there with them, I love college sports as well as anybody, but also realize in some aspects it may be out of hand, an institution of higher learning. It is going to have to be some changes made, eventually.

CK: How do you stop it?
AM: I don’t know. I don’t know what the solution is. I remember Nebraska saying they would stop spending on athletics and then they had a bad year in football and the president was fired, so … It is hard. It is a real question.

CK: I want to talk a little about your time working with the Legislature. What did you learn from that?
AM: Governor Winter taught me a lot of lessons about working with the Legislature. One of them that has served me well for years is don’t get mad and don’t burn any bridges. The person who votes against you today will vote for you tomorrow, and I found that to be true in a lot of cases.
I found another time I was very frustrated with the lack of progress from the Legislature, and I went in and expressed my frustration to the governor in the governor’s office at the Capitol, and he said remember that this Legislature is a mirror image of the state of Mississippi. He didn’t mean the way that it looked demographically because it is mainly dominated by white men, but he meant in the philosophy of the Legislature and in their stands on various issues, and I found that to be true, that the Legislature is a mirror image of the state of Mississippi and the way people felt.
I also learned how recalcitrant legislators could be moved by the people. If you convinced the people and they felt strongly enough about an issue that needed to be addressed, the Legislature would get around to addressing it because the Legislature responds to those who are involved in that process.
I learned that, and I saw the Legislature be transformed before the Education Reform Act passed and after the Education Reform Act passed as far as the emphasis on education.
I also had never seen a partisan vote until 1992 during the debate over the Education Enhancement Act of 92, which was a very important act. It earmarked sales tax for education and that was the first time that had been done because the taxes that were raised to support the Education Reform Act went into the general fund. So I saw committee members who had voted for that act in committee and when Governor (Kirk) Fordice vetoed it, they voted to sustain his veto because his veto was backed by the Republican Party. That was the first time I saw a pure partisan vote. So, and it has been of course increasingly partisan since that time.

CK: I know the governor compared this session to the Education Reform Act of 1982. How do you feel about that?
AM: I think you have to look at not only the programs themselves but also the funding. When you put the funding in, it doesn’t quite come to what was funded for the Education Reform Act of 1982. Governor Winter was willing to support any kind of tax increase, any kind of source of revenue if it would go to improving the lives of children. Many of these programs that passed lack funding. So when you put in the funding aspect of it, it doesn’t measure up to what the ’82 act did.
Now program for program, you just have to go through and look at each one. Now, there weren’t that many significant, from an education standpoint, programs to the 17 programs of the Education Reform Act. There was only one program in there that was brand new and there was not a national model somewhere and that was the new system of accrediting schools. What was revolutionary about the Education Reform Act of ’82 was the change in the attitude of the Legislature and elected politicians on the issue of education and the emphasis on education.
I told Governor Bryant, I applaud him for keeping education in the forefront. Regardless of how valuable the programs are and regardless of the lack of funds, it is important he would keep education in the forefront and have discussions on it. Back-and-forth discussions are useful for yielding good programs. Eventually you have to take a stand on funding. Early childhood education is expensive. Charter schools are expensive. Eventually you have to take a stand on funding.