For much of Mississippi’s history, public elementary and secondary education in has often been substandard or practically nonexistent. In 1982, however, the state departed significantly from its usual approach to public education when the legislature passed landmark education reform, an effort that involved intense political maneuvering and an unprecedented campaign by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
The Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 established compulsory school attendance, created state-funded kindergartens, increased teacher pay, authorized the hiring of teaching assistants and truant officers, and implemented a statewide testing program for performance-based accreditation of public schools. The reforms were funded by increases in the state’s sales tax and corporate and individual income taxes.
Prior to passage of the act, Mississippi’s educational system received inadequate funding and was still reeling from conflict over integration. Many public officials expressed only tepid support at best for a system that had lost many white students to private segregated academies after the full desegregation of the public schools in 1971. Before 1982, for example,
- Mississippi was the only state without a public kindergarten program;
- only 45 percent of children who began first grade finished the twelfth grade;
- the state had the nation’s second-highest illiteracy rate;
- about 10 percent of children did not attend school at all because of weak attendance laws;
- only one in twenty children attended preschool, compared to three out of four nationally;
- the armed forces rejected 35 percent of Mississippi applicants, nearly four times the national rejection rate of 9 percent.
Attorney and former state legislator William Winter had been elected governor in 1979 and made education reform the centerpiece of his legislative agenda. He created the Special Committee on Public School Finance and Administration “to develop programs ‘that will produce the best possible educational system for the state.’”
After his education agenda stalled in the 1981 and 1982 regular legislative sessions, Winter mobilized public support for reform before calling a special legislative session in December. In addition to a public awareness campaign undertaken by his staff via a nonprofit group, Winter made 82 speeches between June and December to promote his proposals, while First Lady Elise Winter, his staff, and other officials made 362 additional speeches. Supporters of education reform also held nine regional town meetings to discuss the issue.
Winter’s efforts picked up support from many of the state’s newspapers, most prominently the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. In the weeks leading up to the special session, the paper published a series of investigative articles providing an overview of public education in Mississippi, gave extensive coverage to Winter’s efforts to garner public support, and printed editorials calling for education reform. The paper also highlighted each step of the legislative process, including debates, committee meetings, negotiations, and discussions of funding.
Moving beyond usual legislative coverage, the Clarion-Ledger created a Hall of Shame, in which it spotlighted legislators who had voted against portions of the education reform bill. The reporting had an impact: according to Andrew P. Mullins Jr., “It was obvious from legislators’ public and private comments that this kind of journalism, which had not been seen before, was devastatingly effective. Publicly criticizing individual members for their votes rather than the legislature collectively as had been the custom created a tremendous amount of pressure on lawmakers. The resulting constituent pressure influenced many of their votes.” The Clarion-Ledger’s coverage of the issue received a 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
On 20 December 1982 the bill passed both houses of the legislature after much debate and political wrangling. Winter, who said the bill represented “a break with the old do-nothing spirit of the past,” signed it into law three days later.
The act has resulted in many improvements to Mississippi’s educational system, although it continues to trail many other states. A 2002 study by the Mississippi Department of Education found that since 1982 the state had implemented uniform curricula in state schools and strengthened teacher certification and licensure programs. Statewide testing has demonstrated that students have made “slow but consistent progress, with test results inching up for the past several years.” Mississippi’s rate of high school completion increased by 8.6 percentage points between 1990 and 2000, and Mississippi’s annual dropout rate fell from 6.2 percent to 3.2 percent between 1995 and 2012.
The Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 fundamentally changed the way the state leaders approached education and provided a model for other states, many of which passed similar legislation in the years following Mississippi’s action.
- Mississippi Department of Education, Progress Report of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 (2002)
- Andrew P. Mullins Jr., Building Consensus: A History of the Passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 (1992)
- National Center for Education Statistics website, nces.ed.gov
- US Census website, census.gov
- Kathleen Woodruff Wickham, The Role of the “Clarion-Ledger” in the Adoption of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982: Winning the Pulitzer Prize (2007)