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Candidates highlight importance of education

By By Terry R. Cassreino / assistant managing editor
Sept. 7, 2003
When three leading candidates for statewide office turned their attention to education last week, it showed more than anything how important public schooling has become in Mississippi politics.
Democratic incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove announced he will ask state legislators next year to make in-state college tuition a deduction people can itemize on their state income tax returns.
Republican Haley Barbour, Musgrove's chief opponent in the November general election, outlined an education proposal to create an "extension service" to help parents aid their children with school work.
And Republican incumbent Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck sent form letters to public school teachers in the state touting her support for teacher pay raises and asking for their vote in November.
It's a far cry from 1975 when William Winter who many observers believe was the catalyst for renewed interest in public education ran and lost his bid for governor while making education as his top issue.
That year, voters backed Cliff Finch, a Batesville lawyer whose campaign stressed the need for jobs.
Four years later, in 1979, Winter followed suit, ran on the jobs issue, won the governor's office and then began emphasizing the link between a strong public school system and the ability to attract industry and jobs.
Importance of education
Today, more than 20 years after Winter guided the landmark Education Reform Act of 1982 to passage in the Legislature, most Mississippians understand the importance of a strong education system.
And why shouldn't they?
Public education is the single biggest expenditure of the state. This year alone, Mississippi will spend $4.29 billion, or 37.5 percent of the total $11.45 billion state budget, on elementary, secondary and higher education.
Some candidates for state and legislative office grossly misrepresent that figure, telling voters that Mississippi spends 62 percent of its budget on education. That, however, is simply not true.
Whatever the percentage, $4.29 billion is a lot of money. And voters have a right to know how candidates would spend that money and how they would change the state's education priorities.
At the very least, Musgrove, Barbour and Tuck recognize how critical it is for them to win support of educators and parents across the state. All three understand the importance of such a large voting bloc.
And with eight weeks to go before the Nov. 4 general election, Musgrove, Barbour and Tuck have more than enough time to go into greater detail on their education proposals and answer questions that still linger.
How much would Musgrove's tax exemption for university tuition cost a state budget already flirting with disaster from a weak economy? What else does Barbour propose other than an "extension service?"
And what exactly does Tuck propose for her next term? Her letter to public school teachers simply points out what she said she has accomplished the past four years and nothing about her future plans.
Race for speaker
State Reps. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, and Bobby Moody, D-Louisville, can breathe easier: fellow state Rep. Erik Fleming, D-Jackson, has dropped out of the race to become the next House speaker in January.
Fleming, now in his fifth year in the Legislature, actually had little chance of wining the job and an even smaller chance of snagging significant support from the 122-member state House.
His exit shrinks the race for what is arguably one of the most powerful jobs in state government among other things, the speaker decides which bills House members consider to a five-man field.
Of those, the top two candidates appear to be McCoy, a 24-year lawmaker who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, and Moody, a 20-year lawmaker who chairs the House Public Health and Welfare Committee.