JACKSON The Kirk Fordice Administration has not shown its hand yet on its talked-about legislative proposals to shake up the state public school system and install its version of "parent power" and more local control of the schools.
Early indications from legislative sources are that the Fordice people will not push immediately for enactment of a school voucher system, something the governor has previously advocated.
But the administration's legislative agenda is expected to give priority to some of the key elements of what Fordice calls his "PRIME" education plan. Expected to be pushed first is the administration's idea of giving a small band of parents the power to organize "charter" schools over which parents would evidently have control of curriculum and selection of teachers, all of it to be paid out of public funds.
Of course, establishment of the charter schools would necessitate providing for them all of the related services such as school transportation, cafeterias, libraries, and the like.
The charter school scheme doesn't resonate very well with state Sen. Grey Ferris (D-Vicksburg), the Senate Education chairman, who spent years in the upbuilding of his excellent hometown schools, even before he got into politics. Ferris, like other key public education advocates in the Legislature, is very skeptical of the PRIME concept as a threat to diluting the ability to fund education.
The idea of a small group of parents banding together to organize schools to suit their own needs, he says, "could mean a proliferation of small schools in any district."
In a number of school districts, Ferris said, "we already have to many small schools that can't offer the full range of courses in the sciences, or languages or offer honors courses to prepare our children to be competitive, not only in this state but in the rest of the country."
Mississippi spends less per pupil than any state in the union, Ferris emphasized. "Yet, we have some remarkable schools," he declared. "Anyone who denigrates the efforts of the many dedicated teachers and administrators in our school system do a disservice to the children of this state."
He took issue with those who are critical of the state Board of Education and the Department of Education for their oversight of public school districts around the state. The board and department, he said, "are there to assist school districts that are in need of assistance," whether it be in the area of finance, curriculum, or management.
"There's no doubt that some districts in our state are at risk, and the Department of Education has played a very responsible role," he said. North Panola's current fiscal woes are a case in point where the Department of Education is coming to its assistance to solve the district's problems.
Like Ferris, his counterpart in the House, Rep. Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi), the House Education chairman, is apprehensive about the entire concept of Fordice's PRIME program, none of which has been introduced in specific legislation as yet.
The Fordice student voucher idea had been brought up, he said, at a meeting he had with a Christian Coalition group recently, and he told them straight out he didn't think well of installing a voucher system. Such a system would create all sorts of new problems that many supporters of the idea have not considered, McCoy said. "What about transportation, for instance?" he asked. "Would parents expect their child who goes to another school with a voucher to be provided transportation?"
His grave concern, also, would be the welfare of students left at an inferior school after other students with vouchers moved to a better school in the area. "I think the courts would have something to say about that," McCoy declared.
Conceivably, a large number of students armed with vouchers could invade a superior school in the area and totally destabilize that school's operation.
Some have observed that under a voucher system, it is also possible that bus loads of inner-city children armed with vouchers could be bused by interest groups to suburban, elite schools, much to the chagrin of the latter.
Uppermost, the House Education leader said, his concern is to provide all children of Mississippi a stable classroom, with decent equipment, a quality teacher, and a safe environment.
Through long years of efforts by education supporters (his father, one of those) the state has guaranteed a solid foundation for public education and given equal opportunity for all children to get a good education, McCoy declared.
Key building blocks in public education cited by McCoy, have been the enactment of the Minimum Foundation Education Program in 1953-54, the 1982 Education Reform Act, the Equity Funding Act in the late 1980s, and the Enhancement Act of 1992. Each community, he said, can build upon the minimum support which they have been provided, to provide supplemental funding for programs to enrich their schools.
Now, we're very apprehensive of any notion (such as PRIME, vouchers, etc.) which sets aside large sums of public money for the elite few," McCoy added.
In Ferris and McCoy, Mississippi has two public servants with a longtime, deep interest and perspective for public education needs, and the ability of the state to meet those needs. They are not about to toss the baby out with the bath water because of some preconceived notion that public schools aren't working as they would like.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947.