Mississippi Votes 'Monumental' Reforms in Education Programs
Jackson, Miss--In a 16-day special session that left many Mississippians both surprised and pleased, the Mississippi legislature approved a $106-million package of education reforms that state officials hope will improve both schools and the state's image with business and industry.
The reforms had been sought for several years by Gov. William Winter, who argued that the long-range benefits of improved education justified the costs of the program, even in the current poor economic climate.
Mississippi now has the highest dropout rate--over 40 percent--among students, the lowest salaries for teachers, and among the lowest per-pupil expenditure rates in the country.
It is also the only state with no statewide public kindergartens.
According to federal statistics, Mississippi also has the nation's lowest per capita income ($6,500) and ranks first among the states in infant mortality, teen-age pregnancy, and birth defects. The U.S. Army reportedly rejects 35 percent of Mississippi volunteers because they fail standardized intelligence tests, as opposed to a national failure rate of 9 percent.
The Governor described the new education-reform law, passed shortly before Christmas, as a "monumental education and economic development program."
Its major components include:
Mandatory statewide public kindergartens to be set up by the fall of 1986, with provision for some kindergartens to start a year earlier.
Penalties to enforce the state's compulsory-school-attendance law to be phased in beginning next fall. Under the new law, parents who fail to send their children to school could be fined up to $1,000, jailed for up to one year, or both.
A $1,000 acrosss-the-board salary increase for teachers in the 1983-84 school year, plus a $25 increase in the increment they receive for each year of teaching experience.
A program to provide aides for classroom teachers to help teach reading and other basic skills. The program would be phased in beginning in 1983.
The law also includes other long-range measures aimed at improving education. In 1983, a new commission will develop a program to raise standards both for teacher-education programs at state universities and for teacher certification.
And in 1986, a commission for school accreditation will begin developing a system to accredit schools on the basis of performance standards.
Beginning in 1986, the classroom performance of new teachers will be evaluated during their first year to determine whether they should be certified to continue teaching.
In addition, the state education-finance commission will draw up a plan on school district and attendance-center consolidation and reorganization that will go into effect in 1986.
Funds to pay for the new measures will come from increases in sales and income taxes. A 1-percent increase in taxable individual and corporate income over $10,000 went into effect January 1 and a .5-percent increase in the five-percent sales tax will go into effect next January. (The income tax increases from 4 percent to 5 percent on amounts above $10,000; the tax remains at 3 percent on the first $5,000 to $10,000.)
Initially, the Governor had hoped to finance the measures with an oil and gas severance tax. That proposal was defeated.
Victory for Governor Winter
Passage of the bill represented a major victory for Governor Winter, a moderate veteran of 32 years in politics who has made education his top priority since he became governor three years ago.
He convened the special session Dec. 6 despite criticism from key legislators about its cost--$300,000--at a time when finances are tight and the state unemployment rate is hovering around 11.9 percent.
But the Governor did his homework. In numerous citizens' forums around the state this fall, he drummed up support for the special session and for educational improvements with a familiar message: Mississippi won't get off the bottom rung of the nation's economic ladder unless sweeping changes are made in the state's education system.
Public support for the bill, Governor Winter said, was "massive," and legislators understood that many people wanted them to pass the bill.
Also, the Governor noted, Mississippi voters approved a constitutional amendment last fall that provides for a new nine-member lay board of education in 1984. He said he saw the vote as a signal that Mississippi residents were seeking major improvements in the state's education system.
During the special session, hundreds of Mississippi teachers lobbied their legislators and kept track of the votes. The teachers, 8,000 of whom rallied in Jackson last spring in support of pay raises that were voted down in the legislature, made it clear to legislators that they would remember their special-session votes when it came time to cast ballots during the 1983 elections.
But another special interest group, the oil and gas lobby, was credited with defeating Governor Winter's plan to pay for educational improvements with a hike in the state's oil and gas severance tax--the same proposal that had been killed during the regular 1982 session.
Claiming that a 33-percent hike in the tax would discourage industry from exploring for oil and gas in Mississippi, vocal opponents of the plan drew much media attention. At one point, a group of oil industry tractor-trailers noisily circled the State Capital Building. The proposal died mid-way through the special session.
The legislature opted for the increases in sales and income taxes. That solution, however, will place a burden on poor people, noted William Allain, the state attorney general and a member of the state board of education.
In general, the education community in the state reacted favorably to the new law. Tony Rollins, executive secretary of the 13,000-member Mississippi Association of Educators, noted that the bill's passage will boost confidence in Mississippi's public schools. But he added that "teacher flight" from the state will remain a problem despite the new pay raise.
"The pay raise will still leave Mississippi teachers at the bottom,'' Mr. Rollins said.
While commending the legislature for doing "a remarkable job to improve the schools in Mississippi," State Superintendent of Education Charles E. Holladay, also a board member, said the legislators still need to do more in future sessions, including providing better financing for rural Mississippi districts. He acknowledged, too, that the bill's enactment came as something of a surprise.
"A lot of circumstances fell into place," Mr. Holladay said of the special session. "Nobody thought the legislature would approve a comprehensive package addressing education needs."