Education and politics – along with a frequent mixture of the two – dominated the news in Northeast Mississippi and the rest of the state in 2012.
It was a year in which the Republicans completed their takeover of state government for the first time since the late 19th century and began a push for changes in public education, including charter schools and a new state ranking system.
The three most powerful state officials – Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn – were all Republicans and all new to their positions.
On the federal level, Northeast Mississippi’s two Republican incumbents – Sen. Roger Wicker and Congressman Alan Nunnelee, both of Tupelo – were re-elected and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney easily carried the state after losing the spring GOP primary to Rick Santorum. A spirited state Supreme Court race elevated 40-year-old Josiah Coleman of Toccopola to the nine-member court.
In Tupelo, a new superintendent of schools, Gearl Loden, helped restore calm and rebuild confidence after several years of instability, turmoil and waning public support. State accountability rankings released in the fall and based on a year under interim leadership moved Tupelo up two notches to High Performing, or “B,” under the new ranking system enacted earlier in the year by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
In Northeast Mississippi, 12 schools got the top ranking – Star, or “A” – including Saltillo and Mooreville high schools, revealing a huge gap between schools in the northern and southern halves of the Lee County School District. Verona Elementary School, by contrast, was ranked “F.”
While an expanded charter school bill failed in the Legislature, GOP leaders worked to build support for it over the summer and fall and Bryant touted a focus on grade-level reading skills for all third graders and scholarships for low-income children to private schools. The discussion ensured that education will be a primary topic of the 2013 session that begins Jan. 8.
Meanwhile, state leaders grappled with responses required of the state under the new federal health care law, including whether to expand Medicaid and create a state health exchange.