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Southern States Warned New Federal Law Could Bring Bad News

If the South wants to lead the nation in education, as leaders repeatedly declared here during the Southern Regional Education Board's annual meeting June 22-25, much work needs to be done.

The encouraging sign for lawmakers, governors, and other policy-pushers who gathered here was that everyone seems focused on making Southern schools much better than they've ever been.

The roughly 150 leaders at the SREB meeting are the ones who will "take the actions and set the policy that determines how well we do" in meeting an ambitious new set of education goals, said Floyd Coppedge, Oklahoma's secretary of education and the SREB's vice chairman last year.

"How well we do does not depend on fate," he added.

As a first new step, the SREB approved a set of goals that aim to elevate its 16 member states into national leaders in education improvement. The goals include: making sure every child is well-prepared for the 1st grade; providing better-quality teachers and principals in each school; and achieving 100 percent graduation rates, with more options for those who don't finish high school. ("Southern States Poised to Set Lofty New Education Goals," June 19, 2002.)

Much discussion was held here, as well, on the coming impact of the revised federal education law. The "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, championed by President Bush, will likely cause some twists for Southern political leaders who may find it difficult to push changes in their states' education systems when the federal law starts labeling many of the nation's schools as low- performing.

Susan K. Sclafani, a chief aide to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, warned the SREB conference that state accountability systems label too few schools as "low-performing," and will not match up with the tougher new federal requirements. ("Frustration Grows as States Await 'Adequate Yearly Progress' Advice.")

The law, a retooling of the flagship Elementary and Secondary Education Act, will require schools to break down student-achievement data by race and other groups, and will require marked improvement within every group.

"Political leadership is going to be in a quandary," said Mark Musick, the president of the SREB, who joined a panel discussion on the new law with Ms. Sclafani.

In recognition of a pioneering drive for school reform 20 years ago, the SREB awarded its highest honor, the Lamar R. Plunkett Award—named after the late Georgia lawmaker who helped lead the organization for decades—to former Gov. William F. Winter of Mississippi.

Mr. Winter was one of the first Southern governors of his era to push for major statewide school improvement. His reforms were controversial when he proposed them after his election in 1980; some white Mississippians were deeply suspicious of his support for equity and increased spending on public schools.

The former governor said that he used a 1981 SREB report called "The Need for Quality" as the blueprint for the Mississippi Education Reform Act, which passed in 1982. He used the occasion here to press for expanded early-childhood programs in the South. Preschool must be expanded, and new efforts aimed at even younger children "will enable all children, particularly from culturally and economically deprived households, to enter school" prepared to succeed, he said.

While one Mississippi governor received an award, another was handed the symbolic gavel.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove took over for a fellow Democrat, Gov. Roy E. Barnes of Georgia, as the chairman of the SREB for the next year. A son of two high school dropouts and the first person to graduate from college in his family, Mr. Musgrove declared "the emergence of the South as the leading region of the nation," even as many states deal with the "same questions we've been dealing with for generations."

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, who took office in January, proved the quickest study of all the governors at the conference. The Democrat confessed he had been riveted as he sat taking notes during a day of the conference.

"Governors don't sit anywhere for two hours straight," Mr. Warner quipped, after he had done just that, listening to a morning of discussions on education.

He thanked the SREB and the panel that developed the new education goals.

"What you've provided us throughout our states is a framework for how we're going to approach these issues over the next 10 years," Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Warner also announced that he would be "laying out a major initiative in a couple of weeks" on how Virginia will work to improve its lowest-performing schools. He declined to give details, but suggested the program would link struggling schools with more successful ones, and with businesses that might provide expertise, manpower, and resources.

State Sen. Lloyd G. Jackson II of West Virginia reminded everyone at the meeting—even those who might doubt that the Southern states can't overcome their education problems—that the organization's expertise and the exchange of ideas among leaders sent them home with the power to make schools substantially better for the children in the South.

"We don't face these challenges alone," Mr. Jackson said.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 21, Issue 42, Page 32

Published in Print: July 10, 2002, as Reporter's Notebook
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