Southern governors gathered here last week to discuss how they might improve their region’s high schools—and, therefore, their workforces.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat and the SGA’s outgoing chairman, joined Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican who became the group’s new chairman here, to release a report on improving rural high schools in the South. (“High School Policy Gets Spotlight in Report to Southern Governors,” Sept. 15, 2004.)
“We’re going to hold ourselves accountable” for improving high schools, Gov. Perdue said at a news conference.
Governors from 12 of the SGA’s 16 member states also heard from experts on how states can—and should—improve high schools.
Gene Bottoms, who advises state leaders as the senior vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, said Southern states should aim to “lead the nation in increasing the high school graduation rate.”
He noted that a new study shows that nearly 1,200 high schools in the SGA states graduate fewer than 60 percent of their 9th graders within four years—including 245 schools in Texas, 107 in North Carolina, and 100 in South Carolina.
Other panelists praised rural high schools in Mississippi and North Carolina for beefing up instructional time for mathematics and English, tapping more community leaders to be part of academic planning, providing scholarships with community colleges, and using housing and other incentives to draw good teachers to remote campuses. “There was no cost to this,” Linda Johnson, a member of the Louisiana state board of education, said of several reform measures.
Others challenged the governors to develop ways they might improve high schools in each of their states.
“It’s going to be your job to figure out how to fix or replace bad schools,” said Tom Vander Ark, the executive director for education at the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which financed the SGA’s high school report. Mr. Vander Ark urged governors to look for new ways to configure high school to help more students do well.
Virginia offered one example, announcing last week that 63 colleges across the state will accept the same Advanced Placement courses for college credit, and the state has begun offering 13 advanced courses online for rural schools.
Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Republican who has championed high school consolidation, asked about the right size for high schools.
The governor said he had suffered through “two years of hellish experience,” in which lawmakers defeated his plan to merge small high schools across the state. Arkansas ended up merging 57 of the state’s smallest school districts instead—an equally unpopular move in small communities. (“Arkansas School Merger Plans Take Shape,” April 21, 2004.)
“Define small. Tell us what is realistic,” Gov. Huckabee implored Mr. Vander Ark of the Gates Foundation, which backs smaller schools.
“You can run a good high school with a core curriculum in a traditional way down to … 200 or so [students],” Mr. Vander Ark responded. Even smaller schools can succeed, but they must operate differently, he added.
Rachel Tompkins, the president of the Arlington, Va.-based Rural School and Community Trust, which advocates for small and rural schools and has mobilized Arkansans against Mr. Huckabee’s plans, said the new SGA report shows that smaller high schools can do well.
“Are there alternatives to consolidation? Yes,” she said. She urged Gov. Huckabee and rural-school advocates in Arkansas to combine forces to improve schools in the state—instead of battling over which schools or districts to merge.
Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina said he wants to see “marketplace” ideas in education. The Republican has pushed tax credits and school vouchers in his state, though unsuccessfully so far.
Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana, a Democrat, said education and the economy in the South should rise together. “This is not an impossible dream,” she said.