LLOYD GRAY: Where to from here?

By Lloyd Gray

Virtually everyone in state government agrees that a strong public education system is the key to economic development and a more prosperous future for all Mississippians. They may disagree on how to make education better, but that it’s the most important factor isn’t in dispute.
It wasn’t always that way.
More than anything else, the Education Reform Act of 1982 – enacted 30 years ago this week – raised Mississippians’ awareness about the connection between public education and economic competitiveness. The campaign leading up to its passage, led by an impassioned Gov. William Winter, was an education in itself for a state that had never highly valued its public schools and that saw many of them abandoned and the very concept of public education questioned during desegregation.
The reform act changed the political dynamic. Commitment to educational support and improvement has waxed and waned since, but education has never left the top of the political lip-service list.
Thirty years after this signal event, Mississippi’s political leaders are rightly impatient with the progress the state is making in educational achievement. Education reform is again at the top of the agenda.
Most significant is the expansive, pervasive achievement gap that exists between economic and racial groups. It’s an intolerable drag on Mississippi’s economic development hopes, and effectively addressing it is a moral imperative for the sake of the children involved.
A year ago, Daily Journal education reporter Chris Kieffer probed the achievement gap in a three-day series focusing on Tupelo’s schools. As we pondered what to do next beyond day-to-day coverage of educational issues and developments, we considered choosing for special focus one of several factors contributing to Mississippi’s still-poor educational performance. It soon became clear that none of the factors can really be separated from the others, that they’re all related.
Mississippi is a poor state, first of all, because it devalued, even denied, education for so much of its population for so long – blacks and poor whites. It is a low-performing state in educational achievement largely because it is poor. The cycle is devastating.
That’s not an excuse for failure, but it’s a reality, given the strong correlation in Mississippi and elsewhere between economic disadvantage and poor educational performance.
Today the Daily Journal begins a year-long comprehensive look at the factors affecting educational performance in Mississippi and the systemic reforms that will be necessary to raise that performance. We’ll look at how poverty affects a child’s education and what that means for teaching children of poverty. We’ll examine issues like teen pregnancy and family structure that perpetuate the poverty cycle. We’ll explore the state’s efforts to improve reading, the foundation for all learning. We’ll look at teacher quality, training and recruitment. And we’ll focus on the growing consensus on the necessity for education preceding kindergarten, that cornerstone of the 1982 act.
We’ll keep a close eye on the policy debates on issues like charter schools as well, taking a look at the states and communities being offered as models.
In all this, we’ll try to connect the issues surrounding school performance, help raise awareness about them and explore potential solutions.
Education reform, as Winter has said, is not a one-time event but an ongoing process. Mississippi isn’t where it was 30 years ago, but it’s far from where it needs to be. We invite you to join us in the months ahead as we look at what it will take to get us there.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.