The event honored former Gov. William Winter and members of his staff 30 years after they shepherded the passage of the Education Reform Act in December 1982. The most sweeping piece of education reform law in state history, the act created public kindergartens, teacher aides and mandatory attendance requirements, among other reforms.
However, panelists said, much work remains to be done as other states continue to improve.
“I do think we have lost our momentum,” Winter said. “I do think we’ve lost that political will to do the hard things that must be done. They can’t be done without more investment in public education.”
Today’s state lawmakers have pledged that education reform will again be a major component of the upcoming Legislative session.
But Dick Molpus, who served on Winter’s staff and later became secretary of state, said the Legislature’s focus on charter schools and vouchers will not go far enough to boost Mississippi’s education system.
Those reforms will only impact a couple thousand of the state’s 500,000 public school students, he said.
“The support is still there, and it is broader than it was in 1982, but we are seeing piecemeal solutions,” Molpus said. “We are seeing artificial solutions being presented. We need to take giant steps in Mississippi to catch up. Instead we are seeing baby steps.”
In addition to Winter and Molpus, the panel included other former Winter staff members David Crews, John Henegan and Andy Mullins. It was moderated by Charles Overby, who was editor of The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in 1982 and ’83 when it won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the process leading to the reform act.
Winter said one of the greatest legacies of the act was that it made education an important part of public policy in the state.
“Can you imagine today if kindergartens and compulsory education hung in the balance?” said Crews, who served as Winter’s press secretary. “I’m not sure when since then we would have passed it. If we didn’t have that, we’d be so far behind other states. We’d have never gotten Nissan or gotten Toyota.”