Southern States Poised to Set Lofty New Education Goals
President Franklin D. Roosevelt once labeled the South the nation's biggest economic problem. This month, a group of Southern leaders expects to announce a series of education goals it believes will help make the region America's most promising solution—at least where schools are concerned.
The Southern Regional Education Board will consider approval of a dozen new education goals on June 25. A commission of one member from each of the SREB's 16 member states will present the set of goals to the nonprofit group's governing board during its annual meeting in Atlanta.
The last time the SREB states set education goals was in 1988. Not only did those goals help drive education policy in Southern states for the next decade, but they also helped inspire the education goals for the United States that emerged from a national educational summit the following year.
"What this report is going to assert is that the Southern states can lead the country in educational progress, which is a far, far cry from President Roosevelt's South," said Mark D. Musick, the president of the Atlanta-based SREB.
The proposed goals, outlined in a 28- page report set for release after the SREB vote, are ambitious. The price to accomplish them may not be cheap.
Among the group's aspirations: making sure every child is ready for 1st grade, boosting elementary and middle-grades student achievement to above national averages, and ensuring that 100 percent of students graduate from high school or earn a General Educational Development certificate. (See the accompanying table, "Template for Improvement.")
"At stake is not bragging rights, but the continuation of economic progress that has lifted parts of the South—though not yet all of it— out of the poverty and culture of low expectations that have been the region's curse," the report of the goals commission says.
Gov. Roy E. Barnes of Georgia, a Democrat and the current chairman of the SREB, said in an interview last week that the goals prove the Southern states are serious about improving schools.
"I believe that the SREB states can lead the nation in educational progress, and these goals set up a framework and a blueprint for the way we may do so," he said.
The report warns that Southern states—which range from Texas and Oklahoma in the western part of the region, down to Florida in the south, and north to Delaware—must do more to help students in the region's most struggling schools.
Only about 5 percent of the South's worst schools receive help from state education agencies, and the resources available for that help relate "more to a state's budget and politics than schools' needs," the report says.
Finding the money to make education the major focus of every state will be a challenge.
Data from the 2000 U.S. Census show that 12 of the 16 SREB states fell below the national average in per-pupil state spending. The lowest, Mississippi, spent $5,014 per student, compared with the national average of $6,835 and New Jersey's high of $10,283.
Gov. Barnes said spending more on schools doesn't necessarily mean states must rush to raise taxes. But making sure the right resources are in place for education is the state's duty, he said.
"I can tell you firsthand, the money has to come from establishing your priorities, and also making sure that education is the number-one priority each and every year in all the SREB states," said Mr. Barnes, a first-term governor who is up for re-election. "Might it take more money? Yes. Most policymakers I know, and most governors I know who are interested in improvement, they're spending more money."
Nancy K. Kopp, the state treasurer of Maryland and a former legislator, said state leaders know more than ever about education, and about how spending can be focused on persistent problems. "Funding has got to be aimed at quality and productivity," she said.
The SREB states have made enough progress since the 1988 goals on such matters as academic standards and accountability that a new set of goals makes sense, added Ms. Kopp, who chaired this year's goals commission and served on the earlier goals panel.
Setting the Bar
The proposed SREB goals also address early- childhood programs, adult education, teacher quality, school leadership, and accountability for K-12 schools and higher education.
While the list of goals calls for making sure "every student is taught by qualified teachers," the report also suggests that teacher salaries should be linked in some way to student performance.
Gov. Barnes said that examples of such policies include Georgia's new bonuses for teachers whose students show test-score gains, and for teachers who complete National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification.
The report also sets as a goal that states make sure all principals can provide effective academic and instructional help in their schools, and for states to improve graduation rates dramatically.
Gov. Barnes estimated that some 40 percent of Georgia high school students leave school before graduating. Early-grades improvements will help more students nail down their basic skills and keep them in school, he said.
Whether the SREB states can reach such lofty goals in tight economic times depends on what happens after the goals are set, said Lorin Anderson, an education professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
The South is "only going to be successful in reaching these goals when we educate the most difficult to educate," said Mr. Anderson. "Just by setting goals, you're no closer to achieving those goals."
Vol. 21, Issue 41, Pages 21, 24Published in Print: June 19, 2002, as Southern States Poised to Set Lofty New Education Goals