JACKSON (AP) — Democrats who pushed Mississippi's Education Reform Act into law 30 years ago said Friday that current leaders are offering only small-scale ideas, not ambitious plans that could strengthen the entire public school system.
In December 1982, then-Gov. William Winter called a special session and persuaded lawmakers to pass the law, which made several changes, including compulsory attendance, addition of teachers' aides and creation of kindergarten in all public schools.
The special session came after months of public meetings that generated support for Winter's ideas, combined with in-depth coverage by the state's largest newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, which frequently published a front-page "Hall of Shame" listing legislators who opposed the act. The newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for its coverage. Critics said Winter's education proposals were too expensive and weren't needed.
During a forum Friday at Millsaps College to discuss the 30th anniversary of the act, Winter said improving schools takes constant effort and that other states aren't standing still.
"I do think we've lost our momentum," Winter said. "I do think we have lost that political will, at least as spoken by the politicians. We've lost that political will to do the hard things that must be done. They can't be done without more investment in public education."
Gov. Gov. Phil Bryant and other Republicans are pushing charter schools, which are public schools free of some regulations. Bryant also is proposing tax credits to create about 2,200 scholarships for children to attend private schools, although it's not clear whether he'll have widespread support even within his own party.
One of Winter's former staffers, Dick Molpus, said current state leaders are presenting "piecemeal" education proposals.
"We're seeing artificial solutions being presented," Molpus said. "We've got to take giant steps in Mississippi to catch up. Instead, what we're seeing debated are baby steps, little timid steps."
He said that even if charter schools and private-school scholarships are created, only a minuscule percentage of student would be affected.
"The charter school legislation's going to suck all the oxygen out of that legislative session," Molpus said. "If 10 schools get established at 500 apiece, that's 5,000 students. That's less than 1 percent of the students in Mississippi."
Molpus was Mississippi secretary of state from 1984 to 1996. He was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1995, losing to Republican incumbent Kirk Fordice — the man who plucked Bryant from a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1996 and made him state auditor. Bryant was auditor for 11 years before being elected lieutenant governor in 2007. He won the open race for governor in 2011.
Another former Winter aide, Andy Mullins, is founder and co-director of the Mississippi Teacher Corps, and co-founder of the Mississippi Principal Corps, two groups are designed to sharpen educators' skills. Mullins said during the forum Friday that he's not opposed to charter schools, but he thinks they should be limited to districts where schools are struggling.
Some lawmakers propose creating a governing body for charter schools that would be separate from the state Board of Education.
"I'm 100 percent opposed to that," Mullins said.
The state board was created in 1982, shortly before the Education Reform Act became law, to provide a central governing body to ensure schools are meeting academic standards.
Jackson attorney John Henegan, who was Winter's chief of staff, said good things are happening in public education in Mississippi.
"When people say that there are not and that's why we've got to have charter schools or that's why we need to have a voucher program, we need to be in a position to challenge them about that," Henegan said.
David Crews, who was Winter's press secretary in 1982, said passing the Education Reform Act took hard work. He said one opponent, Democratic Sen. Ellis Bodron of Vicksburg, called the act "well perfumed hysteria."
"We naively thought, 'Hey, this is going to be driven by content. If we throw this out there, they're going to pass it,'" Crews said. "Well, they kicked us in the teeth twice in a row and we quickly learned that we were going to have to play hardball.
"It kind of reminds me of what the preacher said one time... 'When I start to feel the heat, I begin to see the light,'" he said. "And what our whole effort revolved around was putting heat on the Legislature ... marshaling support among parents."