On Wednesday, I attended a screening of “The Toughest Job: William Winter’s Mississippi,” a Southern Documentary Project film detailing Mississippi Governor William Winter’s political career, the passage of significant education reform in Mississippi, and his subsequent racial reconciliation work. The film was followed by a provocative and inspiring conversation between Governor Winter and former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, moderated by MDC’s president, David Dodson. Governor Winter served as MDC’s Board Chair from 1991 to 2001 and still serves as an example of the integrity, commitment, and perseverance required when it comes to improving conditions—economic, educational, and civic—in the South.

Governor William Winter with MDC's Shun Robertson, David Dodson, and Anna Ormond

Governor William Winter with MDC’s Shun Robertson, David Dodson, and Anna Ormond

The film focuses on the passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 (MERA); as I learned about the setbacks and the strategy surrounding the legislation, I was reminded of University of Michigan professor John W. Kingdon’s three streams that must come together to shape public policy:

  • “Conditions become defined as problems when we come to believe that we should do something about them.”
  • “The processes by which public policies are formed are exceedingly complex—these processes are dynamic, fluid, and loosely joined.”
  • “The political stream [is] composed of such things as public mood, pressure group campaigns… and changes in administration.” (John W. Kingdon, Agenda, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Longman, 2002): pp. 109, 145, 231.)

Behind the scenes, monitoring these three streams are policy entrepreneurs, advocates who are willing to invest their resources (time, energy, reputation, money, etc.) into setting the policy agenda (Kingdon, 179).

When former Mississippi Governor William F. Winter wanted to mandate statewide public kindergarten, he called on several staff members (Dick Molpus, John Henegan, David Crews, Bill Gartin, Ray Mabus, and Andy Mullins)—often referred to as the “Boys of Spring”—to serve with him as policy entrepreneurs and guide the passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 (MERA). This act changed the course of public education in Mississippi and has been referred to as the greatest piece of civil rights legislation of 1982.

How did Kingdon’s three streams come together to shape MERA for Governor Winter and the Boys of Spring?

Problems

Because of school integration rulings, there was a wave of white flight to private schools in the 1970s. In the Jackson school district, nearly 25 percent of students left the public school system from September 1969 to September 1971 (Cathy Hayden, “White Flight Reverses Desegregation Efforts,” The Clarion-Ledger, July 9, 1995, p. 1A). Mainly black children remained in inadequate, separate but unequal public schools.

When Governor Winter came in to office in 1980, he explicitly stated that building a better public education system was his number one priority. At the time, legislators were apathetic towards public education, viewing it as an institution that only benefited blacks; universal kindergarten would only serve as daycare for low-income black workers. Many white legislators stated that none of the voters in their districts attended public schools.

Policy

In the 1982 regular session, Winter and his staff tried three times to pass a statewide kindergarten bill but were unsuccessful. At the end of that session, the Speaker adjourned the House without a clear majority in favor of adjournment, preventing the kindergarten bill from being voted on before the end of the session.

At the time, Mississippi governors could only serve one term. Time was drawing nigh for Winter.  He would be a lame duck during the next legislative session, which would severely limit the chances of a kindergarten bill being passed by an unfavorable legislature. Winter decided to call a special session of the state legislature in December 1982 to give the kindergarten bill one last opportunity for passage. Winter and his staff packaged the kindergarten bill with other education reform efforts, including compulsory school attendance and new standards for teacher and student performance.

Politics

Before the bill came up for a vote, Winter and his staff traveled all across the state, advocating for passage. They spoke at countless town hall meetings and churches, sometimes drawing crowds of 2 and 3000 people, creating a grassroots effort around education reform.

The education reform advocacy activities caught the attention of the editors of the Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi’s state newspaper. Reporters wrote a series of articles on education reform, covering the town hall meetings and providing data on the state of education in Mississippi. Editors wrote:

“The overriding question is this: Will rank-and-file legislators speak out in this special session or will they cower in the corner and a few bullheaded leaders make the rest of the legislature look bad?… Mississippi is at a crossroads. The direction we take depends on how our legislators respond to the urgent call for education improvements. If there are legislators who don’t understand the urgency of that call or the sensibility of it, then it’s high time the public learned their names. The governor is ready… The public is ready. Is the legislature ready?” (“The Mississippi Christmas Miracle: Explaining the Success of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982,” p. 28)

The Clarion-Ledger published all votes, even committee votes, for the education reform bill in the paper—listing how each legislator voted.

Windows of Opportunity

When Kingdon’s three streams come together—problem, policy, politics—a policy window is created (Kingdon, 165). For every issue, there is a short window of time and an opportunity to push attention to it. When the policy window opens, the policy entrepreneurs must by ready.

The public support campaign, along with the newspaper articles, put pressure on legislators to act.  In December 1982, the Mississippi Education Reform Act passed the House of Representatives 80-38 and the Senate 26-25.

When considering the problems, policies, and politics surrounding education reform, it is important to understand the critical role of policy entrepreneurs and their efforts to find windows of opportunity. Governor Winter’s statewide kindergarten efforts demonstrate the significance of Kingdon’s stream alignment and reveal the gravity of understanding when an idea’s time has come.