Mississippi improves a poor report card

As Southern states retool the public schools, the progress of one is turning heads.

When he was 6, Ronnie Musgrove became ill and missed much of the school year, spending his days in a hospital rather than an elementary school. But his first-grade teacher, Katherine Trenor Nelson, was determined not to let one of her students slip behind. She came regularly to his bedside, tutoring him after school hours.

Eventually Ronnie, whose parents had never made it past 10th grade, was reading enthusiastically and confidently.

Mr. Musgrove, who is today governor of the state of Mississippi, stills loves to tell the story of his first-grade teacher. "I know the difference one inspired teacher can make," he says over a recent breakfast meeting in New York. "I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today if it hadn't been for Mrs. Nelson."

So perhaps it's not too surprising that Musgrove is one of a number of US governors currently vying for the title of "education governor." While serving in Mississippi's state Senate, he chaired its education committee and became known as an advocate for the state's schools. His most recent accomplishment: winning approval earlier this month for a $3.6 billion budget, 62 percent of which is earmarked for spending to improve Mississippi's public education system.

But Musgrove, a Democrat, is not alone in bringing a sense of urgency to the cause of education reform in his region. Throughout many Southern states, local politicians are making the retooling of their public schools a top priority.

"If there's any place in the country where state legislators have really had their noses to the grindstone on education, it's been in the South," says Kathy Christie, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

That's because the region has no choice, Musgrove says: "There's not even a debate anymore in Mississippi as to whether we need to invest in our schools."

Not that long ago, Musgrove recalls, a rural state such as Mississippi offered plenty of work for unskilled laborers on its farms. "In the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, education was never a priority throughout the South," he says. "You could get through life without it. But the world has changed. Today, you need a skilled work force."

A particularly jarring wake-up call for Mississippians, says Musgrove, was the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s. "As a result of NAFTA," he says, "the kind of businesses that create entry-level jobs have just passed right over us."

But if the past decade has seen Southern legislators pouring attention into their schools, plenty of work remains to be done. "In terms of attainment," Ms. Christie says, "the southern states are still pretty much in the bottom quadrant."

Mississippi in particular has long been associated with the bottom of the education barrel in the US. For years, the state's spending on education - and its academic achievement levels - has been among the nation's lowest.

Today, Mississippi ranks 50th in the percentage of adults who have high school diplomas, and sixth in the percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds who do not.

But in recent months there have been signs of change. Mississippi has been turning heads by showing up on some very different kinds of lists.

Last December, the state became the first in the nation to place an Internet- connected computer in each of its K-12 public school classrooms. Of those computers, 32,000 were built by Mississippi high school students.

Last year, when the New York-based Princeton Review looked at accountability and testing systems in all 50 states, it ranked Mississippi sixth in the nation - a giant leap from 50th on earlier surveys.

And when it comes to complying with new federal education laws, Mississippi is suddenly a leader. "We were looking at the No Child Left Behind data, and Mississippi came up on our radar screens," says Christie of her group's efforts to track state policies with respect to the new law. "We were just totally impressed."

In fact, in the entire US only 11 states have thus far won federal approval of their NCLB plans. Of those states, five are Southern, with Mississippi becoming only the sixth in the nation to get the nod from the US Department of Education.

For some years now Mississippi has quietly been putting into place programs aimed at lifting its public schools, says Gale Gains, director of legislative services for the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

She points to both a package of financial incentives designed to lure talented teachers into some of the state's underserved rural regions and a five-year plan to boost teacher salaries from among the lowest in the South to a level slightly above the regional average by 2005.

"They've not reached the point where you'll see maximum benefit, she adds, "but they continue to work hard."

One area where Mississippi's schools have demonstrated a stubborn lack of improvement has been in their degree of racial segregation. When courts ordered the schools integrated in the 1970s, many white students throughout the South fled to private schools and never returned.

In Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, more than half of all white students in 41 nonmetropolitan counties were enrolled in private schools in 2000-2001, according to a study done at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The same study notes that today in Mississippi more than 90 percent of white students attend private schools in 10 counties.

Today there are those who dare to hope that, as Mississippi schools improve, so will the racial balance.

Since 2000, former Netscape president and native Mississippian Jim Barksdale has poured millions of dollars into a reading initiative to help students at 78 of the state's poorest schools. Many schools have since seen a bounce in reading scores. And of those 78 schools, 36 percent also saw an increase in white enrollment between the 2001 and 2002 school years.

The question Mississippi voters have to ask themselves when they think about their state's schools, Musgrove says, is: "Will our children have to leave our state to find jobs?" Fixing local schools, he says, "is our chance to improve quality of life."

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