1982 reforms directly improved public schooling

When asked to comment on the 20th anniversary of the nation's very first Education Reform Act, my first thought was that it was the defining achievement in William Winter's legacy; for it was his determined leadership plus a series of unforeseen circumstances in the Mississippi Legislature that brought it about.

Prior to the passage of the act itself, there was almost no support for education improvement in the Legislature.

In 1980 the so-called Blue Ribbon Committee that Winter appointed to make recommendations for "Education Finance and Improvement" met 60 times in a six-month period, presented 17 carefully drafted education bills to the Legislature on its first day of 1981, and not one even got out of committee.

We had 12 legislators on the 20-member committee - six from the House and six from the Senate. They caucused before each meeting and never agreed on anything that I can recall.

We had in fact run into a new set of the "3 R's" in education:

1. Resentment of federal interference in schools;

2. Reluctance of private school supporters to tax themselves for public education;

3. Racism.

And to that you could add a fourth "R" - recession - which was worse than today's struggling economy.

Even so, Gov. Winter continued to push for education reform, building a consensus among education supporters throughout the state, and in August of 1982, scheduled eight public forums to be held throughout the state to discuss education issues.

At the first public meeting in Oxford, 3,000 showed up from the Northeast region where only 500 were hoped for. There were more interested citizens and business people than educators in attendance, clearly indicating the depth of concern.

The most controversial and bitterly contested proposals were mandatory kindergartens and the taxes to be levied to support them.

Following the statewide showing of broad and strong support, the governor called a special session on education reform in December, which resulted in "The Christmas Miracle of 1982."

The long range impact of the act's passage was to move public education to the top of the agenda in both local and political races where it remains today.

The immediate result of the act was to set in place the most sweeping reform of Mississippi's public school system in the state's history and to establish a solid base for future reform.

One prominent writer on the national education reform movement in the 1980s said: "The conception was fun, the birthing wasn't too bad, but the implementation was hell."

I agree, but thanks to our newly appointed state superintendent, Dr. Richard Boyd, the new Board of Education managed to do pretty well.

Educational improvement will always been an "act of progress," and by its very nature, education itself is always subject to a great deal of criticism; however, there is no denying that many important improvements resulted from the Reform Act itself, namely:

Full day kindergartens.

Compulsory attendance.

Teaching assistants.

Teacher pay raise.

Air-conditioned schools and better facilities.

More freedom from regulations.

No pass-no play laws.

Increased qualifications for school board members.

Alternate routes to teacher certification.

District report cards with levels 1 through 5 resulting in greater help for weaker districts.

Improved student achievement.

Adequate and fairer district financing.

These are not insignificant accomplishments.

Two major items in the original proposal that did not pass were:

To appoint all superintendents.

To reduce the 60 percent vote required to pass school bond issues to 50 percent.

I am still of the opinion that both of these could improve public education.

Despite the successes, we all know that schools need to be better. We now realize that economic development and education are inseparable and that further improvement must be made.

While I understand the difficulties that the Legislature faces in preparing a reasonable budget in these economic times, I do believe that further budget cuts in education at all levels in Mississippi (as is now proposed) will imperil the gains we have made in the last 20 years. I would support almost any reasonable effort - taxes or otherwise - to prevent that happening.

Jack Reed of Tupelo was the first chairman of the layman-led state Board of Education. He is a nationally prominent public education advocate.

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