charlie mitchell

Awaken passion for learning, Gov. Winter advises

ACKSON – By accident or design, it fell to William Winter to deliver the stem-twister.

And no one in the room was disappointed when the gracefully aging former chief executive rose and endorsed a slick report full of slick words mostly about the role of two- and four-year colleges in the future of Mississippi.

“There has to be a seamless garment of education at all levels,” Winter intoned as his brief speech ended. “Those who come along behind us must no longer have to pay any penalty for being from Mississippi.”

There is polite applause and there is sincere applause. Because his voice was clear and strong and filled with conviction, Winter got the latter.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the former governor’s singular success in achieving passage of the Education Reform Act of 1982. Revolutionary for its time, the bill added kindergartens, created a state board of education that wasn’t composed of politicians, broadened compulsory attendance and fomented dozens of other changes in public grade schools, including the formulas by which they are funded.

Lawmakers had been offering lip service to the topic of better schools, but nothing more – saying the cash wasn’t available. Winter and his staff, after having been rebuffed time and again during regular sessions of the Legislature, decided to create a public clamor for public schools. They did, and under a level of scrutiny only a special session can create, lawmakers that December suddenly decided to do more than dither and delay.

Last week’s auspicious event was the unveiling of the “Building Opportunity In Mississippi Through Higher Education” report. Working since last May, 40 selected big cheeses from public and private colleges, business, industry and other walks, had drafted the plan. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove was co-chairman with BancorpSouth CEO Aubrey Patterson. University and community college presidents, legislators and college board members on the committee were in the room to view the results. Winter, a member of the panel, sat in the audience with everybody else.

As these things go, their report was fine – filled with lofty yet indefinite goals such as, “Mississippi will increase participation in adult lifelong learning, worker training and professional development activities.”

But the roadmap’s strongest attribute may be its concentration on improving education as opposed to merely increasing funds.

Indeed, perhaps its strongest point is made in Priority 3: “Mississippi will substantially boost the quality of teaching and learning in all elementary and secondary schools to better prepare more graduates who are ready to compete in the new economy.”

Forget the terms “compete” and “new economy.” They’re frou-frou. Zoom in on the words “quality teaching” and “quality learning.”

Obviously it takes adequate pay to attract people to the field of education and it will take increasingly better pay to keep them there. But the report doesn’t call for paying teachers more at all, much less as the only way to fix what’s broken. Instead, it says teachers must do quality work or, one would hope, find other jobs. The emphasis is on whether students learn and, to borrow a term from math class, nowhere in the report is learning described as a function of spending.

The new 800-pound gorilla on the education block is the federal “No Child Left Behind Act” signed by President Bush the day after the Mississippi huddle on higher ed. It aims to make the same point in a slightly different way.

The act increases federal dollars for grade schools in this state by 10 percent to $533 million this year. Despite all the times we continue to hear the words “cutbacks” and “education” in the same sentence, this law awards a 24 percent increase in federal education money to Mississippi over the 2000 allocation.

All federal awards have strings attached. This one has a steel cable: Unless schools show improvement in their “quality” of instruction, the federal checks will stop coming.

Benchmarks that will be used to measure that “quality” to keep the federal dollars can and should be debated, but remember Winter’s example and his words to the assembly.

It was the public’s passion for support of schools that got the Education Reform Act of 1982 passed. If that passion is renewed in this state, all else – including better test scores and adequate dollars – will follow. Winter knows that a child or grownup who is imbued with a love of learning can’t be held back. The trick is instilling that motivation.

“I’ve seen a lot of reports on education,” said Winter, glancing at those in the room who’d perhaps seen even more. Most are shelved, useless except as something for cleaning crews to dust.

If life is breathed into the goals, indifference about education can be overcome, he said. Once people appreciate that learning is a “seamless garment,” all else will fall into place.

Charlie Mitchell is managing editor of The Vicksburg Post, P.O. Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182. E-mail reaches him at post@vicksburg.com.