Education

Mississippi Reforms At Mercy of Politics And Fiscal Problems

By Lonnie Harp — February 13, 1991 12 min read
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Rows of worn houses mark the neighborhood around the Greater Clark Street Baptist Church here, where crime and other problems of poverty have settled. For the Rev. S.L. Bowman, though, the church is a symbol of hope and rejuvenation.

Mr. Bowman saw the same kind of potential in the ambitious school reforms state officials proposed here last year. Now that the education program has fallen into limbo, he has organized 40 fellow pastors from around the state to protest its fate.

“We thought it was a good program and put Mississippi in the national vanguard,” said Mr. Bowman, pastor here for more than a quarter-century.

Mr. Bowman’s frustration and disappointment mirror those of many educators and political leaders in the Magnolia State, who are struggling awkwardly to revive the momentum for school improvements that blossomed--and quickly withered--last summer.

Little more than a year ago, lawmakers, parents, educators, and community leaders were embracing what many in Mississippi hailed as the nation’s most ambitious school-reform plan. But a bruising political showdown between Gov. Ray Mabus and legislators left the plan unfunded.

The dawn of an election year in the state, moreover, has tempered talk of new spending at a time when drastic budget cuts are being made. And, as in many other states, a downturn in tax revenue has turned last year’s serious customers into this year’s window-shoppers.

The failure of the Better Education for Success Tomorrow bill has plunged educators into a situation that many could not have imagined even after last year’s regular legislative session ended in a deadlock over funding for the reform plan.

“As late as June, when I was appointed, there was a real sense of excitement in Mississippi about the direction we were going,” said Richard Thompson, the state school superintendent. “In most people’s minds, it was just a matter of having the special session to fund it. When those plans fell apart, it’s almost been since that time that we’ve literally gone straight downhill.”

“We’re looking at not only not moving forward,” he said. “We’re looking at the possibility of moving backward.”

The $182-million best plan, which carried a $38-million first-year cost, included incentives and sanctions for school performance, expanded dropout prevention, adult-literacy, and early-childhood screening programs, as well as transportation and capital-improvement efforts.

Lawmakers last year cut back some traditional education funding, expecting the money would be made up in the reform plan. That loss, along with cuts triggered by revenue shortfalls, has worsened the sagging morale that observers see as one of the most devastating effects of the best struggle. The standoff has also generated cynicism toward leaders in Jackson.

“There is extreme frustration,” said Susie Broadhead of Meridian, the mother of two elementary-school children. “All they did was talk about money, money, money. Nobody talked about the children.”

“As for morale and incentive and confidence in the system, it’s in absolute free fall right now,” said Representative James C. Simpson, chairman of the House Education Committee. “We have given them a message that we did not attach the importance to education that we said we did.”

But the discouragement expressed by educators and community leaders has yet to take hold of Governor Mabus, who developed the bill.

Mississippi remains ahead of other states in its education-reform efforts, he argued in an interview.

“We’re still way ahead of the game because we’ve got it on the books. We’ve done that step,” the Governor said. “The only frustrating thing about it is that every year you lose, you can’t ever get back. You lose a year on the rest of the country and the rest of the world.”

Mr. Mabus, who remains adamantly opposed to sales- or income-tax increases to pay for the education program, said there was a 50 percent chance of passing the entire best program this year, and a 100 percent chance next year.

In either case, he emphasized, it will be crucial that the legislature pass the entire program.

“If you implement things at a different rate, that’s one thing. If you bust up the total package, then I think you get a lot less than the sum of its parts because it really was a whole look at education,” he said. “This is our election year. I think people are interested enough in education and know enough about this bill that this will be one of the big issues, and right after the election, you’ll see it fully implemented.”

But many lawmakers and analysts believe best’s day as a legislative program has come and gone, and they do not expect that to change after Election Day.

Representative Simpson gives the package no chance of passing this year. If lawmakers are able to pass the programs that educators say should be implemented immediately, he predicted, what will be left next year will be the expensive programs with little prospect of passing on their own.

“All you’re left with is the thorns in the bouquet, and that’s going to be pretty hard to sell,” he said.

Senator Irb Benjamin, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, already has introduced at least 12 bills that include low-cost academic reforms that he said are crucial to keep education reform alive in Mississippi in the wake of last year’s clash with Mr. Mabus.

“At this point in time, there’s a lack of concern about what the Governor would really like to do or want,” Mr. Benjamin said. “What we’ve got to do is what’s right for education and let the chips fall where they may.”

As they work to resurrect at least part of the best bill, many lawmakers are wondering why the media attention generated by the Governor’s plan never translated into grassroots support for paying for it.

Leading members of the legislature’s education panels said many of their colleagues did not understand the multifaceted best program, while leaders of parent groups said they had a difficult time getting voters excited about the proposal.

Ultimately, lawmakers said, the initial interest spurred by Mr. Mabus was enough to gain support for the substance of the bill. But when the funding plan followed with provisions such as a lottery--which had long been opposed by a majority of the Senate--the support was not strong enough to sway lawmakers from those stands.

“There was not a general movement of the people,” Mr. Simpson said. “There was no rallying point, and that hurt. I heard a great deal from teachers about health insurance and a lot from the school boards about the nepotism provisions. I heard a great deal from every segment about their particular parts of the bill, but I never heard much discussion of the parts of the plan that were beneficial to children.”

Sammy McDonald, administrative superintendent of the Jasper County schools, agreed that educators did not make a very strong case for passing the best bill.

“Educators in this state sat back while the Governor presented his program, and we let the Governor and legislature fight over the bill,” he said. “The educators did not take the position of leadership they should have.”

Unlike the state’s widely praised 1982 school-reform law, which focused on mandatory kindergarten, best lacked a single theme to offer to the public, observed Joy Ferrell, legislative vice president for the Mississippi Congress of Parents and Teachers.

“It’s hard to get people involved when they don’t know what’s in it,” she said.

Mr. Benjamin said many lawmakers were overwhelmed as well.

“One of the problems we had last time was that nobody would read the bill,” he said. “They didn’t know the old rules, so they didn’t know why the new rules were important.”

Mr. Benjamin said he hopes that lawmakers will be able to offer reforms that school districts can voluntarily adopt by breaking out affordable and understandable portions of the bill, such as its nongraded primary classes, middle-school vocational-education programs, and a ban on driver’s licenses for dropouts.

Given last year’s best stalemate and the current budget crunch, the watered-down reforms are about all that could be expected, he said.

“We just wouldn’t be able to get there as fast, but it doesn’t put us out of business,” he added.

Mr. Mabus, who said his reform plan “was developed through the people of Mississippi, not in an ivory tower,” added that he is confident he is making headway in the legislature and, if re-elected, will be able to pass the entire best bill next year.

“We’re making progress,” he said. “To do these things requires thick skin and long wind, and you’d better have both of them. These things don’t happen overnight.”

“We have made some headway, but we’re not home yet,” he said.

The Governor also downplayed suggestions that educators and advocates have suffered from a loss of morale due to the best standoff.

“I hope not,” he said. “The fact that education is becoming a priority I hope would help,” he noted, pointing to a 1988 teacher-salary increase, the state’s largest ever.

“Clearly it’s got to be frustrating to them, too, but the fact is that it’s not dead, it’s there; if you start over, it’s going to be harder,” he said. “The fact that we’ve fought that fight and now the only thing we’re fighting over is funding is a huge step.”

But some say that at this point in the fight, everyone is a loser.

“When people think about the best bill, they think about all the money that was spent on the buildup and stumping it around the state, then its passage and its dying,” said Ms. Broadhead of Meridian. “No funding was ever made available for a bill the legislature had the audacity to pass.”

“It’s a moot point,” she added. “But I do feel like there’s hope that enough people will do whatever it takes.”

‘It’s Got To Be There’

From the front steps of Mr. Bowman’s church, the view on a misty day across the railroad yard yields the gray outline of the dome of the state capitol.

For Mr. Bowman and other members of his impromptu organization, Concerned Ministers of Mississippi, the plans of state leaders for education look equally hazy.

“We wanted to ask the legislature while they’re here to adequately fund education, because we feel like the level of education makes a difference in the economic well-being of the state,” he said. “But it looks like they came to Jackson dug in not to do that.”

Mr. Bowman said he refuses to believe that if the state’s political leaders could get beyond their differences, there would not be enough money to launch the best program.

“It’s got to be there somewhere,” he said. “Our educational leaders tell us we need a lot of things. We’ve had to close the schools down because of heat. We’re losing a lot of our best teachers to other states.”

“We’re doing whatever it takes, but we can’t do it all,” said Ms. Broadhead, adding that, despite the current problems, she and many other Mississippi parents are still pleased with their local schools. “Our school system will survive the cuts, but next year, who knows?”

At a recent meeting of superintendents from across Mississippi, observers said they could see how the dire circumstances are taking a toll.

“While these superintendents come determined to make things work, if you’ve got to deficit-spend, you can’t come here and smile,” said William L. Ware, chairman of elementary and secondary education at Mississippi Valley State University. “Unless something happens, the ones who are really going to be hurt are the young folks. I may not get a paycheck, but the ones who are ultimately hurt are the ones in school.”

Many school officials, burned by the shortfalls that came in the wake of the best standoff, are turning their attention away from reforms toward more reliable funding from the legislature, said Mr. Thompson, the state superintendent.

“We want to see in Mississippi a long-term, stable funding source so that we don’t have education on this roller-coaster ride every three or four years,” he said. “We’re not talking about massive amounts of money. We’re talking about stable money so people can plan and build programs.”

That longing for funding with no strings tied to potentially controversial reforms may be one outgrowth of the best controversy, Mr. Ware said. After a decade of state support for school reform, he added, the best bill was a potent reminder that its momentum could wane.

“There was great hope when the Governor barnstormed the state and said to people, ‘These are the ways you can be involved,”’ he said. “To have the legislature put it on hold, folks began to wonder about our commitment to education.”

Representative Simpson said the standoff also underscores political lessons on education reform.

“If there is anything we should have learned from the 1982 reform package, it was that education reform is not something you do and then say, ‘Thank God I’m finished with that.’ I don’t think you can postpone education reform,” he said. “In truth, you probably need education reform every year.”

Political analysts offered mixed views about how the best fallout will affect the political fortunes of Mr. Mabus, who is the first Mississippi governor to be constitutionally eligible for re-election.

John Quincy Adams, chairman of the political-science department at Millsaps College in Jackson, said the best battle illustrated Mr. Mabus’s “rationalist” style.

“His mode of operation is one where he says, ‘Here’s a well-organized, cohesive program that meets the needs we’ve agreed on,”’ he said. “That’s not the way politics works.”

But because lawmakers passed the education part of the plan, Mr. Adams said he does not expect the showdown to hurt Mr. Mabus.

“He passed teacher-pay raises, which was a huge accomplishment, and passed the substance of the education bill,” Mr. Adams observed. “So he can argue that he’s the education Governor and say the legislature balked on financing it, because that’s really their responsibility.”

But Charles W. Washington, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said he foresees the best bill “as a significant issue in any re-election campaign.”

“I don’t think the people will accuse the Governor of not doing the right thing any more than the legislature, but people are going to be unhappy,” he argued.

While Mr. Mabus followed conventional wisdom by holding the line on new taxes, Mr. Washington said, many voters may be discouraged that their political leaders were unable to compromise.

“The people of this state, I have found, really want to do the right thing,” Mr. Washington said. “They want to launch forward, and they want that kind of leadership from their Governor and legislature.”

For many of those who watched over the past year, assigning political blame seems a poor consolation.

“The real problem in Mississippi is we have in-fighting in the executive and legislative branches and axes to grind, and it’s hurting all the children of the state,” Ms. Ferrell said. “We’re in a world of hurt. Somebody’s got to give.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Mississippi Reforms At Mercy of Politics And Fiscal Problems

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