Education reform tops list of progress for Mississippi governor

When Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter leaves office in January, he'll have earned the right to claim progress away from his state's hostile tradition in race relations and progress in behalf of quality education.

Twenty years ago, the single event of a black entering the previously all-white University of Mississippi caused a riot that killed two people.

Now, thanks to the passage of Mississippi's Education Reform Act of 1983, the public school system has new state financial support and the potential to become a strong system.

Governor Winter's concern about education is pragmatic. He pinpoints two basic Mississippi problems: lack of a strong economic base that will open up job opportunities, and too little appreciation for the essential education that prepares students for employment or college after high school.

''How can we develop a work force when 42 percent of our high school students drop out of school?'' he asks. ''Education is the key to the development of people with marketable skills needed to compete in the late 20th-century society.''

Only through decisive moves in his ''lame-duck fourth year'' did Winter win his chief priority, the passage of the education reform act.

The governor lobbied throughout the state for his program. He held nine regional public meetings to emphasize the need for education reform. He fought those he calls the ''old guard'' in the state Legislature.

And he got support from Mississippi First, a new biracial group organized and run by Jerry Nash, formerly of Common Cause, to lobby for education and government reform.

''We couldn't take it any longer when the 1982 Legislature turned down educational reform,'' Mr. Nash says. ''We organized (candidates) in every district where a legislator voted against us. We won 60 percent of the races in the August primary.''

The new Legislature passed the education reform bill in December 1982. This legislation provided:

* Muscle for compulsory education, including the hiring of attendance counselors (truant officers) to specifically check children in Grades 1-3.

* Money for a strong reading program for elementary school students, including a readers' aide project to offer pupils reading basics.

* The establishment of kindergartens.

* ''Substantial'' pay raises for teachers, although pay is not up to Southeastern states and national levels of teacher income.

* Level state funding for education, even while reducing budgets of other state agencies 5 percent across the board.

* The levying of a 0.5 percent increase in the state sales tax, beginning in January, to create a special fund for public education.

White flight to avoid desegregated schools has been reversed, the governor says. Only 20 percent of the state's white students attend the private academies that sprang up 20 years ago to avoid desegregation.

Winter does not preach the racist, state's rights, Dixiecrat philosophy prevalent before the civil rights era. And this is a stance he has maintained since he was first elected to office as a state representative in 1947, while a student at the University of Mississippi Law School.

''I want the final line of my term as governor to read: 'There is absolutely no need for pitting race against race in politics,' '' Winter says. ''Mississippi is fully committed to equality of opportunity under the law for all its citizens.''

New industry, which is needed to help finance the education revival that Governor Winter foresees, is not yet flocking to Mississippi. The recession has slowed activity, and the state's negative image still detracts some interest. Winter has sought to improve the state's reputation through various state agencies and tourism.

In race relations, Winter now lives on a reputation that in the 1960s was described as ''too liberal'' and ''soft on segregation.'' He was defeated in bids for the governor's seat in 1967 and 1975.

He finally won in 1979 in a campaign in which he quietly wooed blacks, who were fast becoming a potent force at the polls after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He set a pattern for such former Dixiecrats as Gov. George C. Wallace (D) of Alabama and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, who now openly seek black support.

''Winter has done more for black people in this state than any other governor ,'' says Alvin Chambliss, who spearheads activities of Jesse L. Jackson and his Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) in Mississippi. But he also notes that Winter has appointed only one black county judge and no blacks to the state Supreme Court.

Charles Tisdale, editor of the Jackson Advocate, the state's largest black newspaper, does not share in the admiration of Winter. ''The tragic fact is that blacks support the governor, but he is no flaming liberal to me,'' says Mr. Tisdale.

The governor has not acted to thwart ''hate'' groups that send antiblack materials to his office regularly, says Tisdale. ''The Klan and American Nazis are still alive and kicking.''

''On a scale of 10, I rate Governor Winter a 6,'' says Aaron Henry, perhaps the most influential black in the state and one of 17 blacks elected as state legislators the year Winter was voted governor. ''He is a new type of governor for Mississippi. There will be no more like (former Gov.) Ross Barnett, and I'm glad.''

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