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Governor's Race in Miss. Pivots on Education

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Jackson, Miss.

No matter who is living in the big white house at the corner of Capitol and Congress streets here come next year, he will be hounded by the same promise: to change the face of the state's school system.

When Mississippi voters go to the polls on Nov. 7, education will be the most striking issue separating Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice and his Democratic challenger, Dick Molpus.

Both men want a tax cut. They both want more jobs. But they couldn't disagree more over the issue of public schools.

And they couldn't be happier that they are so completely opposed to each other on the matter.

In a state that is making its name--and more and more of its living--off riverboat gambling, Mr. Fordice and Mr. Molpus have placed their bets on whether people love or hate the public schools.

"The eyes of this nation are going to be focused on Mississippi on the night of Nov. 7, and by the next morning a clear message will be sent out on where the public schools fit in the national dialogue," Mr. Molpus declared. "If we abandon our public education system, we will lose what this country is all about."

Race Tightening

Gov. Fordice is an unabashed proponent of unprecedented deregulation and is promising a constitutional amendment that finds ways around the current system of public school management. Meanwhile, Mr. Molpus, the Mississippi secretary of state, promises a public school renaissance.

"On a wide variety of policy issues, they are about as far apart as they can get," said John Quincy Adams,sic a political analyst and retired professor at Millsaps College here.

Mr. Molpus entered the governor's race as the first Democrat in more than a century to run as a challenger, and he was a huge underdog.

Mr. Fordice, a 61-year-old building contractor who grew up in Memphis, Tenn., per AP. and lived in Vicksburg, Miss., before moving to the governor's mansion, used his combative and outspoken personality to narrowly defeat Democratic incumbent Ray Mabus in 1991. His hard-charging style has created huge fans and bitter opponents over the past four years and led to rocky relationships, particularly with the Democratic-controlled legislature and the capital press corps.

Buoyed in large measure by the state's riverboat-induced economic upturn and the popularity of Republicans these days, he commanded a 30-point lead in early polls.

But over the past several weeks, Mr. Molpus has managed to close that gap to single digits, and many observers expect a close race over the next few weeks. After repeatedly balking, Gov. Fordice has agreed to meet his rival in a televised debate this week. And that event will launch the frantic home stretch of the gubernatorial race and the requisite flood of television and radio ads.

Mr. Molpus said he would like to see the race turn more toward education issues in the closing weeks.

"Our current governor is openly hostile toward the public schools. He talks about how school administrators have hornswoggled the public and calls teachers extortionists. He's one of those bankrupt politicians who can curse the darkness with the best of them but offers no constructive solution," Mr. Molpus said in an interview.

Gov. Fordice's campaign blasts education-reform activists like Mr. Molpus as ineffective bureaucrats who are afraid to turn the reins of schools over to parents and teachers.

"Over the last decade, education reform has been about cutting a bigger check for schools, and what we're seeing from the other side is simply the same thing," said John Arledge, the spokesman for Mr. Fordice's campaign. "We've seen spending go up, but our test scores are going down, and we say the problem is a stifling state bureaucracy that had its chance to make things better, but it hasn't gotten the job done."

Mississippi is one of three states with gubernatorial elections Nov. 7. Louisiana voters will choose a successor to Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards, and in Kentucky, Republican candidate Larry Forgy is up against Lt. Gov. Paul Patton, the Democratic nominee. (See story, this page.)

A Legislature-Free Education

At the heart of Mr. Fordice's education agenda is a deregulation plan known as prime--People's Right to Initiate Model Education.

The plan goes beyond the home-rule school district concept passed this year by Texas lawmakers and exceeds other states' decentralization projects by allowing voters in a district to extend public funding to schools outside of the existing state-financed system.

Under the plan, local school boards could opt to create new schools or annex existing nonpublic schools into the district's mix. (Mr. Molpus and Mr. Fordice have sparred over whether existing private schools could eventually qualify for state funding under the plan's wording.) Outside schools turned down by the board could be approved by voters with a 60 percent majority vote.

Parents would be able to choose from the approved schools, and state money would flow to those schools, which would be granted freedom to set their own curricula and hire either certified teachers or people deemed experts in a given subject area.

Beyond the prime proposal, Mr. Fordice has promised to push for merit pay for teachers and move to a statewide system of appointed local school superintendents. Some superintendents are now elected.

In pamphlets advocating the deregulation concept, Mr. For-dice's supporters argue: "It will prevent Mississippians from having to rely on the legislature to make tough decisions and needed changes in local schools. Local schools shouldn't be subjected to the whims of politicians." The literature also promises that the plan would "prevent attempts to teach alternative lifestyles such as homosexuality."

Jeanne Forrester, Gov. Fordice's education-policy adviser, said that backers of the plan have collected more than 50,000 of the 85,000 signatures needed to get the initiative onto a statewide ballot. They have chosen that route because the legislature, where the Democrats have big majorities in both houses, has been unreceptive to the governor's education bills.

Mr. Molpus has aired TV ads zeroing in on the prime plan, citing the possibility that public funds could begin flowing to private academies and that the quality of schools would suffer from a lack of oversight and qualified teachers.

"It would wreak havoc," the candidate said. "And the truth is that this governor has a total lack of interest in what happens to 90 percent of the schoolchildren in this state. This would take Mississippi back 50 years."

Not Just a Cheerleader

Mr. Molpus argues that the answer is to bolster the public schools, and he is almost as critical of many of his fellow public school supporters as he is of Mr. Fordice.

"People care about the public schools more than anything else in the state, but they don't want just a cheerleader, which is all a lot of politicians are," Mr. Molpus said. "They want somebody who is going to make sure they go to a school that is safe and where they get a competitive education. And that's what I've spent my whole life doing."

Mr. Molpus, 46, ran his family's lumber business in Philadelphia, Miss., before joining the staff of former Gov. William Winter to work on education-reform policy. He was elected secretary of state in 1983, and over three terms he has championed lobbying reform, expanded voter-registration efforts, and revision of the way the state leases its trust lands--which has generated more money for schools. Outside of government, he and a small group of friends from a Methodist church in Jackson founded Parents for Public Schools, which now claims chapters in 35 cities in 12 states.

Mr. Molpus has traveled extensively in Mississippi on behalf of the group, which seeks to reverse white flight, lure middle-class parents back into the system, and improve individual schools. In Jackson, the group was credited with generating enough support in 1991 to help the school district pass its first bond election since desegregation. Mr. Molpus' 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son are students in the Jackson schools.

"I know that the trend nationally is away from public schools, and that a lot of politicians have turned into demagogues on a moment's notice, but I've seen what is working in Mississippi, and I know that there are specific, practical ways of improving quality and safety and competitiveness," Mr. Molpus said. "This governor wants to give up on what we have. But I say it's a cause we can still win."

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