SID SALTER: Education reform remains a marathon, not a sprint

By Sid Salter

Gov. Phil Bryant this week celebrated the legislative passage of much of his “Education Works” agenda. House Speaker Phillip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves both touted passage of a charter schools bill with Bryant’s pledge to sign it.
The 2013 legislative session will be remembered as a session in which the Republican leadership that dominates state government made K-12 public education a priority.
Despite histrionic arguments from the state’s K-12 education lobby over the GOP leadership’s priorities, level of funding and methodologies, Bryant, Reeves and Gunn and their Republican legislative majorities spent an inordinate amount of time talking about K-12 education in 2013 and got their reforms enacted.
Looking back to the days when Mississippi Democrats dominated state government to the same degree that the GOP does today – and let’s face it, that involves over a century of political domination and policy responsibility – the conclusion is inescapable that the race for education reform in Mississippi is a marathon rather than a sprint.
It was true for the Dems, it will be true for the GOP.
In a state plagued with Mississippi’s long history of low educational attainment and withering poverty, there are no quick fixes.
Thank goodness charter schools are now a tool in the toolbox for improving public education in Mississippi after a long, hard political battle.
Thank goodness that Mississippi is finally putting a toe in the waters of state-funded pre-kindergarten programs.
Thank goodness that Mississippi is finally beginning to address the self-defeating practice of social promotion even when the student is lacking in the most basic of skills.
But charter schools won’t prove a panacea. Neither will “third-grade gates.” Like the Democrat-led reforms that preceded them, the 2013 GOP-led education reforms are part of a long-term solution that will require vigilance, innovation and money.
Now over 30 years in the rear-view mirror, the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 remains a watershed in the state’s history and a dividing line between the state’s old politics and the state’s new political order that continues to evolve.
The 1982 education reforms brought kindergartens to all the state’s school districts, mandated compulsory school attendance, established the first school accreditation system that contained an accountability component, put teacher aides in the classrooms in the first three grades and provided $110 million in tax revenue to fund those endeavors.
In succeeding years, new state education reforms came in the guise of the Education Enhancement Fund (EEF) and Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).
The EEF was designed to provide funds for school buses, instructional supplies and to offset the ad valorem tax requests from their local taxing authorities.
MAEP was designed to address the thorny question of equity funding in public education – meaning that children in poor counties like Quitman or Coahoma were receiving the same quality of educational opportunity as the children in affluent DeSoto or Rankin counties were getting.
While adequate in theory, MAEP has yet to be given a credible chance to work as intended because of lawmakers have only “fully funded” MAEP on two occasions since it took full legal effect in 2002 – both times in election years in 2003 and 2007.
All those reforms combat a common theme – how to make schools more effective, equitable and accountable in the poorest state in the union when many of the parents responsible for sending children to school ready to learn are uneducated or under-educated themselves.
That’s a non-partisan problem that begs for a non-partisan solution.
SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or

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