By NEMS Daily Journal
This week’s 30th anniversary of the Education Reform Act of 1982 reminds Mississippians of a series of events that became the defining moment in our state’s break from 135 years of short-changing public education – and setting a path that would embrace all children, black and white, for the first time in a more rigorous pursuit of knowledge for a lifetime.
The act, the landmark legislative centerpiece of Gov. William Winter’s administration from 1980 to 1984, reshaped and resoundingly affirmed the importance of improving education statewide.
Winter called the Legislature into session on Dec. 6, addressing senators and representatives in the House chamber, laying out for them a challenging opportunity to accomplish more than had ever been attempted in Mississippi.
Before Christmas, legislators had said no to the past and opened their eyes to the present and future.
The act started the process of helping our state climb out of the educational hole dug by years of indifference and neglect. Some of the key provisions:
• Kindergartens were mandated for every school district, a program taken for granted in some progressive, wealthier districts and only dreamed of in scores more.
• School attendance for the first time in state history became compulsory, the first-ever step toward higher educational attainment for all, which Winter had identified as the key element in climbing off the bottom rung in per capita income.
• The first school accreditation system with teeth was put in place.
• Teacher aides were placed in the first three grades.
• In contrast to everything so far proposed about education reform for the 2013 system, the act raised revenue – the then-unheard of sum of $110 million in new taxes.
The accomplishment was magnified because only a little more than a decade earlier massive white flight decimated many county and municipal school districts, especially in central Mississippi and the Delta, because the thought of integrated schools was unacceptable to many, and it remains so, as seen in that era’s legacy of virtually all-white academies and private schools that did not exist before integration.
That first reform act was a first step, and others have followed, including the Education Enhancement Fund and the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, but much more is needed.
Charter schools are held out as one means of closing the black-white, rich-poor achievement gaps, and they have their place as one element among many for children in low-performing schools. However, nothing will work without the right methods, comprehensive reform and additional funding to fully support all the public schools authorized by the state, eventually including fully funded pre-K education.
Nothing so far proposed heading into 2013 will create the momentum and the sea changes stirred by the Education Reform Act of 1982.