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Sobering study: South could fall even more behind

“The only road out of poverty leads by the schoolhouse.”

That is the quote by former Mississippi Gov. William Winter featured on the cover of the new State of the South 2004 report by the non-profit group MDC (Making a Difference in Communities) Inc.

The State of the South report predicts that the region could fall even more behind economically if current trends continue that leave large numbers of residents ill equipped to make a livable wage.

Winter, who is chairman emeritis of the MDC board, said the report shows it is critical to intensify efforts at providing better education to more of the people in Mississippi.

“We still have a huge gap in terms of our commitment to educate all of our people,” Winter said. “About 25% are getting left out for whatever reason. What the State of the South report stresses is that there are fewer and fewer jobs now available in the unskilled categories. The economic future of this state lies in creating more jobs that will command higher and higher levels of education. We’re not doing a very good job of that.”

Winter said there are still too many, low-income minority children attending poor schools, and not developing the skills they need to thrive economically and culturally.

“Equitable public education is the linchpin of healthy communities, a vibrant economy and an effective democracy,” the State of the South report states. “However, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Southern schools are rapidly resegregating, failing to provide equitable public education while radical economic and demographic shifts threaten the region’s well-being.

“State of the South 2004: Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education calls on the region to ensure integrated, equitable, effective public education to equip our youth for the economic, social and civic challenges of the next 50 years. Much as we might have hoped, the death of legally sanctioned segregation has not yielded full equity in the education Southern children receive. Whether we become a high-performing, multi-racial society, capable of living together harmoniously, or we degenerate into a region marked by cross-cultural tension will depend on how well our public schools teach today’s youth how to live, learn, and work with people who are different.”

Currently, the state is sending all of the wrong signals with regard to education by failing to adequately fund public education this year, Winter said.

“We had put education on top of the political agenda, and now it is not at the top of our political agenda,” he said. “The state is going to slip back competitively if we do not restore more adequate support for education.”

Some critics of the special session on tort reform have pointed out the daily cost, about $33,000, represents the average salary of a schoolteacher for a year. But that may be comparing apples to oranges. Winter considers the special session unfortunate, but said the cost of the session is a drop in the bucket compared to the greater needs of the state.

Winter is critical of the “no new taxes” campaign pledge taken by many legislators.

“To blindly say ‘no new taxes’ is self-defeating,” Winter said. “We will pay dearly for that in the future. I think the business community must do what a number of individual leaders in the business community have done, which is call for additional investment on the part of the state for raising more revenue. We must have additional revenue. It is self-defeating to say we are not going to increase revenues for essential services, including creating more self-sustaining citizens. We are going to have continuing problems from having too many unproductive citizens. We have to raise more revenues to make our citizens more productive. Arkansas and Tennessee have raised taxes. Georgia has raised taxes. Other states are raising the revenue, and we are going to drop farther behind.”

The former governor also believes that just providing more money for K-12 education won’t solve the problem. There must be better preparation for kids to go to school, and that means an expansion of educational commitment to the pre-K years, the early childhood education years that are so vital. That is going to require a substantial additional investment on the part of the State of Mississippi.

Sen. David Jordan, an African-American legislator from Greenwood who grew up in the days of segregation and was a teacher for 32 years, agrees that early childhood education could be the key to a turnaround. He said there is little to no education in many low-income homes where parents didn’t get a basic education for various reasons. Early conditioning that doesn’t place a value on reading and education can have lifelong impacts.

“When children are five or six, sometimes the damage has already been done,” Jordan said. “They have been molded in a way that makes it difficult to change their mindset. Children start learning at age two or three, and need to be steered in the right direction. We need early childhood education programs, and we need to put in an accountability system. I’m not saying just throw money at the problem. We need schools for early childhood that are fully funded and tracked for accountability.”

Jordan was one of the “Senators for Education” who lobbied unsuccessfully in the recent legislative session for more funding for education. He says that failure to adequately fund education hurts all state residents regardless of race.

“I’m grossly disappointed we fell $45 million short in funding K-12 education and $100 million short on funding higher education,” Jordan said. “Last year, education was a priority. This year, it was not. I think we can do better.”

Jordan said it isn’t just minorities in Mississippi who aren’t being adequately prepared by the educational systems. He likened it to whites having a cold, and blacks pneumonia.

“We both have shortcomings,” he said. “With 149 districts, some are rock bottom poor. It isn’t necessarily their fault, but their town and county can’t afford better education because they don’t have any industry there to help.”

The Mississippi Adequate Education program passed in 1997 provides $135 million over a period of six years to help districts in the worst shape obtain basic equipment. Needs were closer to $500 million, but the $135 million is a good start, said Jordan.

“There were some districts that didn’t have basic equipment and basic programs,” he said.

He also favors figuring out what the trends are, and educating children to be successful in those fields. The high paying jobs of today and the future involve technology. So Jordan recommends four years of science education in high school be mandatory — instead of letting kids decide what they take.

Teachers shouldn’t get blamed for the state’s shortcomings.

“Don’t be hard on teachers,” Jordan said. “Don’t be so quick to criticize what teachers are doing. I think teachers are doing an excellent job in most cases. As a retired chemistry teacher, after 32 years in the classroom, I have been there.”

He recalls the days before Brown versus Board of Education when there were no science labs for blacks in the Mississippi Delta. In many instances, there were no books. What books they did get were handed down after being used four or five years at white schools.

“Growing up under those conditions supposedly put most of us behind,” Jordan said. “Some of us may have defied that to go on in spite of those shortcomings. Brown vs. Board of Education was supposed to have ended segregated schools. Yet, it was years after that before it was implemented in any amount. The system was so blocked on racism that it was a decade or more before we could get things started initially. Then when that happened, the black schoolteachers in many instances weren’t allowed to teach in integrated schools. They became hall monitors and things of that nature.

“It has been tough all the way. In spite of that, we have made our contributions, and will continue to make them. But the playing field has never really been level. There has been an improvement, but it isn’t a level playing field. The sad thing about it, we can’t get whites to come back to the public schools. For grades one through six, they will remain in public school systems. But when they leave sixth grade, they go to private school.”

Pete Walley, director of long-range planning for Mississippi, said solutions to improving education are difficult when you are dealing with emotionally charged race issues. For example, he said there is an unspoken rule that teachers will not discipline because a black might discipline a white, or a white discipline black. The result could be charges of racism. That can result in teachers not being able to teach, and children being labeled as problems or delinquents when they really just need discipline.

Walley agrees something has to be done in the early childhood years to help children value education.

“Some kids as early as the third grade have decided they can’t make it,” Walley said. “They say, ‘This is not for me. I can’t learn. I can’t make it. So why should I waste my time?’ They have no way to factor in what that means in terms of their economic well-being 10 to 15 years down the road. They come from a background that says education isn’t important, then learn street-type education and knowledge that gets them to show up as part of Medicaid or the prison system later on down the line.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

Trends Shaping the Future of the South

The State of the South report discusses four crucial trends facing the South:

– The region’s continued prosperity requires more people with higher skills and education beyond high school. Structural changes in our economy mandate it. The region now has more white-collar workers than blue-collar, with that trend predicted to continue. Fewer and fewer jobs that pay a family-supporting wage are available to people who do not have high skills and education or training beyond high school.

– The region’s young population is increasingly Latino and African American. These population groups will comprise an increasing percentage of the South’s future workforce as well as its communities. Meanwhile, Southern public schools are becoming increasingly resegregated, reducing opportunities for all children to learn to live and work together.

– Many low-income and minority youth attend isolated, resource-poor schools, where they cannot get the education they need. Our schools continue to be afflicted by separateness and inequality, and our students as well as our region continue to suffer from it.

– Our high schools fail to engage and inspire many students, regardless of income and race. There are two clear pathways out of high school. One leads to further education and career. One leads to disconnection from society and opportunity, and — for the most unfortunate — to prison. Between these two pathways is a muddled middle, filled with young people for whom high school fails to provide direction or motivation.

The implications of these trends are clear: structural changes in our economy, increasing racial and ethnic diversity and a growing gap between the haves and have-nots are putting increased pressures on the region to prepare all young people for lifelong learning, work and civic participation. Our response to these changes will determine the future health of the region’s economy, civic culture, and democracy. MDC calls on the region’s leaders to develop public schools that meet the needs of a fast-changing economy and a multi-ethnic, democratic society. In doing so, they will bolster both the competitiveness and democratic life of our communities. Fifty years after the Brown decision, the South must act to ensure integrated, equitable, effective public education to equip our youth for the economic, social and civic challenges of the next 50 years.

The report urges regional, state, and local leaders to consider a number of goals to work toward and factors to consider, including:

Ensure that all young people graduate from high school prepared for further education.

– The South must align high school curriculum and standards with the requirements of the emerging economy and postsecondary education.

– Across the South, states and communities must extend literacy instruction through high school.

– Give students multiple pathways through and out of high school — more options and equitable options.

– The South needs high school programs that propel students toward skilled occupations that do not require a baccalaureate degree.

– The South should expand and upgrade the ability of high schools to offer accelerated learning options.

– “Blended institutions” are promising models.

– One size does not fit all.

– Career themes can add value.

– Build stronger connections between adults and adolescents, between schools and communities.

– Guidance counselors can be powerful connectors.

– The South’s schools need strong connections to their communities.

Eliminate high-poverty schools to bring an end to ethnic and social class isolation.

– Local school districts should ensure that no schools have a high concentration of students living in poverty.

– Where entire school districts are so resource-poor that they cannot provide adequate education, it is essential for states to intervene by providing extra resources and/or encouraging regionalization.

Develop a corps of superbly trained, well-paid, professional teachers.

– Faced with demographic destiny, every state must redouble its efforts to identify and train new teachers.

– The South has a compelling need to retain incumbent teachers and to expand their professional development opportunities.

– The South needs to break up the systematic assigning of the most vulnerable teachers to the most vulnerable students.

The State of the South report was funded by Coca-Cola, the Ford Foundation, Progress Energy Foundation and Spencer Foundation. For more information on the state of the South report, see the Web site www.mdcinc.org.

About Becky Gillette

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