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Education reform: 20 years later

By By Buddy Bynum / editor
June 23, 2002
Editor's note: This is the second of two parts, the first of which appeared last Sunday in The Meridian Star.
William Winter was governor when Mississippi approved the Education Reform Act of 1982.
The highly-publicized effort was pushed particularly hard by Mississippi's largest newspaper, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.
The notion was that Mississippi was behind the times and needed immediate corrective action to improve an antiquated public education system. Mississippi students were coming out of high school ill-prepared for additional education or the workplace, it was said.
The act was designed to improve standards in public schools and now, 20 years later, many people are wondering what the effort has achieved.
Last week, releasing a report that explores how the nation's fifth most rural state should respond to changing global markets, Winter said Mississippi needs to make education a priority to prepare people for work in the global economy.
We cannot afford to diminish our support for education and the building of a competitive workforce,'' Winter said in releasing the report, "Mississippi: A Sense of Urgency.''
The report, written by specialists at Mississippi State University's Southern Rural Development Center and MDC Inc., a nonprofit research center in Chapel Hill, N.C., was produced after public meetings last fall in Hattiesburg, Greenville and Meridian.
We are never going to be able to catch up until we have a higher percentage of our people who are productive,'' Winter said.
Ah, at last, someone in authority has used the magic word  "productive." Any educational system that is not producing "productive" people is not living up to its potential. An educational system that tracks money spent on students without any accompanying accountability for what they've learned won't make a wave in the global economy.
As for funding:
The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, designed to help property-poor districts provide basic educational services, is underfunded by $60 million for the coming school year.
In the 2000-2001 school year, nearly 7 percent of Mississippi's public school budget went to food and other non-instructional services. About 15 percent went to maintenance, transportation and other support services.
If I'm reading this correctly, that's 22 percent of the education budget spent before the first book is opened.
What to do.
The study makes several observations about Mississippi's economy. Among them:
Officials need to reach across political, cultural and racial boundaries. Mississippi cannot let city, county and state boundaries interfere with collaborative planning and decision-making, which are increasingly essential to economic competitiveness,'' the study says.
It also says: Mississippians of different races and classes still have to work hard at working with each other.'' And:
To a large extent, Mississippi has exchanged low-wage farm and factory jobs for low-wage retail and service jobs,'' the study says.
Mississippi at times holds itself back by clinging to certain mindsets,'' the study said. In an agricultural and low-skill industrial economy, it wasn't necessary for every young person to get a high school education to find work nearby. But in a global, high-tech society, Mississippi cannot afford having thousands of its citizens dropping out of school or otherwise approaching education without motivation.''
That's the best way to build a competent workforce that can successfully compete in a global economy.
The new report is a realistic roadmap but it won't lead anywhere unless the state's policy-makers and lawmakers embrace its findings and follow the route.