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Mississippi Gauges 5 Years of Reform

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Five years after enacting the nation's first comprehensive package of education reforms, Mississippi is struggling to realize the high hopes for the future that accompanied that legislation.

As in many Southern states, Mississippians have found that the job of building better schools and a brighter economic future in the nation's poorest region is a daunting one. But progress is being made, they say.

Few states have faced more formidable barriers to that progress than Mississippi. The state ranks lowest in the nation in per-capita income and highest in the number of children living in poverty. More than 38 percent of the state's students do not complete high school.

Such statistics prompted then-Gov. William Winter to put forward a sweeping reform proposal in 1982--more than a year before a Presidential commission triggered a nationwide call for change with its landmark report, "A Nation at Risk."

While that report eased the way for major reforms in nearly every Southern state, opposition to the Mississippi legislation was fierce. The costly package was only approved after lengthy debate in the state legislature.

The bill gave Mississippi mandatory kindergarten programs and a new get-tough attendance law, increased teacher salaries, paid for4classroom aides, and created a number of commissions to study other major issues.

Mississippi has since restructured its board of education, shifted from an elected to an appointed state superintendent, and developed a new teacher-appraisal system. High-school students now must pass a functional-literacy test in order to graduate.

According to a recent report from the state superintendent of education, these reforms have led to improvements in some--but not all--areas. Test scores are up, especially in the early grades. Teacher salaries are no longer at rock-bottom, although they have yet to reach the levels called for in the reform law.

But much work remains to be done, according to the state superintendent, Richard A. Boyd.

"As tempting as it is to bask in the glow of our achievements," he wrote in his report, "our students on the average still lag behind those in other states, and we can ill afford to rest."

Mississippi's dropout rate, he noted, remains largely unchanged. The state's average teacher salary, ranked last in the nation in 1982, ranks second-to-the-last today.

More than any other issue, the salary question has come to dominate the political agenda, according to state leaders. The issue figured prominently in this year's gubernatorial race.

"We are going to have a teacher shortage of crisis proportions within the next 10 years," said State Representative Robert G. Clark Jr., the chairman of the House Education Committee. "Our immediate goal has to be to raise salaries."

The powerful Mississippi Association of Educators has demanded that the state raise salaries to match the average for the Southeastern states--the goal called for in the reform law. Governor-elect Raymond Mabus Jr. has publicly endorsed that demand, but other leaders wonder if the state can afford it.

The state education department, for its part, wants the legislature to fund a new remediation effort aimed at high-school students. "The success of education reform in Mississippi depends largely now on how well we can address the problem of students at risk," Mr. Boyd wrote in his report.

Black leaders in the state, however, worry that existing remediation and special-education programs are being used in many districts to segregate students by race.

Such practices, they argue, label black students as poor achievers and exclude them from college-preparatory courses. A spokesman for the state education department denied such charges, saying that placement in remedial and special-education programs is based strictly on socioeconomic factors.

According to the department, white students account for less than 1 percent of those served by theChapter 1 program. Of those students labeled as the educable mentally retarded, 80 percent are black. About 52 percent of the state's overall student population is black.

With white students largely absent from public schools in many parts of the state, educators and political leaders are watching to see whether white taxpayers will continue to support expensive reform measures that do not directly benefit their own children.

According to Representative Clark, white voters have begun to recognize the importance of education in improving Mississippi's dismal economy.

According to Mr. Winter, the state's former governor, the popularity of educational improvement was demonstrated in this year's gubernatorial race. Both candidates, he noted, played major roles in developing and passing the 1982 reform law.

"The political direction of the state is very encouraging to the maintenance of a reform effort," he said.

But even as that effort begins to take root, observers wonder if white parents and their children can be lured back from private academies.

Black educators remain skeptical, but Mr. Winter says he is optimistic that the trend can be reversed.

"I think you are already beginning to see it in those areas where it has been demonstrated to ... white parents that the resources available [in the public schools] are broader and richer than they can find in the private schools," he said.

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