Will They Know What You Overcame? Hamilton, Mobility, and Community Support

The musical Hamilton has taken the nation—and MDC—by storm. Hamilton’s writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, won a MacArthur “genius grant” last fall and Hamilton artists performed the musical’s opening, “Alexander Hamilton,” at this year’s Grammy Awards. Miranda’s lyrics have infiltrated MDC’s offices, with sayings like “I’m not throwing away my shot” or “Why do you write like you’re running out of time” coming up in random conversations. I’m actually surprised that we’re just getting around to writing about the musical on the State of the South blog.

Maybe the reason Hamilton resonates with me and so many of my MDC colleagues is because deep down it’s a story about mobility. Alexander Hamilton was raised by his single mother in the West Indies. His mother died young, leaving Hamilton to live with a cousin who then died, leaving Hamilton orphaned again. The musical’s opening describes what happened next:

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain,
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain


Well, the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and
The world is gonna know your name.

In Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton, he discusses how often Hamilton depended on that financial support from his homeland during his early years in America. This community support led Hamilton to King’s College (now Columbia University) and eventually to President George Washington. Hamilton served as Washington’s “right-hand man” during the Revolutionary War and throughout his presidency as secretary of the treasury.

These same themes of community and mobility came up last week in a conversation between President Obama and Misty Copeland, the first African American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. They talked about race and success; during the conversation, President Obama talked about when he realized that he’d “arrived” and his relationship with his community:

Obama: I don’t know how it felt for you, but certainly for me, you know probably I burst out onto the national scene with the Democratic Convention speech of 2004. And that was the first time that I had a big national audience. And everybody responded really favorably. And so I got a lot of attention and interviews and magazine pieces and all this stuff. And I still remember telling Michelle and my closest friends, I said I’m not any smarter today than I was last week, right. In some ways, when you struggle for a while, and you’ve had the ability of being an ordinary person and you’ve gone shopping, changed diapers and tried to figure out how to pay the bills and so forth, so that you’re not some overnight success. Then handling some of these issues ends up being easier because you have a better sense of perspective. You don’t sense somehow that this is because I’m just so special, or because I’m so much smarter than that other person. Because in fact you’ve known those other people who are talented and smart and capable. In some ways you got a break, you were lucky. And that, for me at least, keeps me grounded because it reminds me that, you know, for all the blessings and privileges and responsibilities that I’ve gotten, I’m just representing a huge cross-section of people who are talented and capable and supported me getting to where I came from. So that takes a little bit of the edge off. And more importantly, it means that your friends don’t start looking at you and thinking oh, you’re acting kind of like you’re all that, right? And it’s good to have friends who will do that for you. If you start acting weird, they’re like —


Copeland: Check you.


Obama: Yeah. It’s like what, suddenly you’re some prima ballerina? Please. I remember when—and they’ll remind you of some story. Okay. That’s helpful.

Community support comes in different ways: it can be financial like it was for Alexander Hamilton or to keep you humble like it is for President Obama. The role of a strong community encouraging its youth and young adults cannot be overstated. I know the role my community played in my upbringing. Everyone in my small hometown were my “aunts and uncles,” providing both the financial support and the humility lessons Hamilton and Obama received.

As MDC works to build infrastructures of opportunity in communities throughout the South, we encourage you to think about your role in supporting youth and young adults. Take a moment to look around: I’m sure your community is full of “young, scrappy, and hungry” youth who are not throwing away their shot at success.


Paying the Cost to Be the Boss: Tuition Rates, Pell Policy, and Postsecondary Access

We’ve all seen data that show education pays:

  • Median earnings for bachelor’s degree recipients working full time is $56,000–$21,000 more than the median earnings for high school graduates
  • Over 10 percent of high school graduates age 25 and older live in a household that relies on SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, compared to 2 percent for those with at least a bachelor’s degree
  • Employers provided health insurance to 55 percent of full-time workers with high school diplomas, 69 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees, and 73 percent of those with advanced degrees.
  • Educational attainment increases a person’s chances at economic mobility. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 10 percent of children born in the lowest quintile of the income distribution who get a four-year college degree remain in that quintile as adults, compared to 47 percent of those without a four-year degree.

But we also know that education costs-and these costs keep going up. On average, national tuition and fees for four-year institutions have gone up 40 percent over the last ten years. Tuition increases are also the norm for community colleges, with a near 30 percent average increase over the same time period. As far as schools are concerned, this is no different. Although this may not be the case for government schools, private schools often have hidden or additional costs (hidden costs of schooling explained) on top of their school fees. Southern institutions are no different than the rest of the nation: Louisiana’s two-year and four-year institutions had the highest average increases over the last five years, at 64 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

Five-Year Change in Inflation-Adjusted Tuition and Fees (2011-12 to 2015-16)

2-year Institutions 4-year Institutions
Alabama 15% 21%
Arkansas 23% 14%
Florida 6% 15%
Georgia 19% 31%
Kentucky 9% 16%
Louisiana 64% 52%
Mississippi 11% 23%
North Carolina 19% 20%
South Carolina 20% 7%
Tennessee 17% 30%
Texas 16% 8%
Virginia 22% 23%
West Virginia 38% 25%

Source: The College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015

Our Southern flagship institutions are a part of this trend, too, making our most well-known state public universities less affordable for many students and their families.

2015-16 Tuition and Fees and Five-Year Change for Flagship Universities

2015-16 Tuition and Fees 5-Year Change (2011-12 to 2015-16)
University of Alabama $10,170 18%
University of Arkansas $8,522 15%
University of Florida $6,381 16%
University of Georgia $11,622 45%
University of Kentucky $10,936 16%
Louisiana State University $8,827 40%
University of Mississippi $7,444 25%
University of North Carolina $8,591 18%
University of South Carolina $11,482 7%
University of Tennessee $12,436 54%
University of Texas $9,830 -5%
University of Virginia $14,468 24%
University of West Virginia $7,632 29%

Source: The College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015

Colleges are quick to point out that students do not actually pay the sticker price; most students receive some type of financial aid (scholarships, grants, or loans). For low-income students, that financial aid may come in the form of Pell grants. The Federal Pell Grant Program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students. For the 2015-16 academic year, the maximum Pell grant award is $5,730 and the average Pell grant award is $3,693. Except for the University of Florida, the average Pell award wouldn’t cover even half the costs for our Southern flagship institutions, making the possibility of attending these colleges unrealistic for some students. And while tuition costs are increasing, the Pell grant award isn’t. The maximum Pell grant award has decreased by $335 over the past five years.

For the 2013-14 academic year, there were nearly 8.7 million Pell recipients. Over 7 million of those Pell recipients came from families with incomes of $40,000 or less. Across the South, there were over 2.8 million Pell recipients, accounting for over $10 million in expenditures for Southern public, private, and proprietary institutions.

Pell has been considered the great equalizer in college affordability for low-income students. And the Obama administration is trying to make sure more students have access to an affordable education while also attempting to increase college completion rates. Last week, the Administration introduced two new proposals:

  1. Pell for Accelerated Completion would allow students to use Pell grants in the summer, making the program year-round. With the cost of tuition and fees, most students exhaust their Pell eligibility within the fall and spring semesters. This change would help students complete degrees faster by covering some of the costs of summer coursework. This program would add $1,915 to the Pell award for nearly 700,000 students.
  2. On-Track Pell Bonus would raise the maximum Pell grant award by $300 for students who take 15 credits per semester for the academic year. This initiative would help over 2.3 million students.

The US Department of Education press release states:

Today the Administration is calling for significant new investments in the federal Pell Grant program-the cornerstone of college affordability. The two new Pell proposals will help students to accelerate progress towards their degrees by attending school year-round and encourage students to take more credits per term, increasing their likelihood of on-time completion. In fiscal year 2017, these changes would mean an additional $2 billion in Pell Grants for students working toward their degrees.

The Obama administration faces an uphill battle in getting these proposals through Congress. But it is these types of innovative policy changes that could make a difference in postsecondary access and success for low-income students. As we move through this election cycle, pay attention to how presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional candidates talk about postsecondary costs and accessibility. It could make a difference for millions of Americans.

Poor Indicators: Testing Our Achievement Assumptions

On this blog and around the office at MDC we talk a lot about economic mobility and the lack of opportunity for upward mobility for many low-income young people. In one of our recent meetings on this topic, I mentioned that it is easy to falsely conflate the low-income student population with the low-achieving student population. Just as there are high-achieving wealthy students, there are also high-achieving, low-income students. A recent longitudinal study from the National Center for Educational Statistics found that high-achieving low-income students are as likely as affluent students with below average test scores to complete a college degree.

This conversation reminded me a study I read years ago about gifted students living in poverty. The authors of the study followed a young, gifted student named Jermaine who lived in a poor county in Alabama. In the study community, “Pine Grove,” all students are African-American and 98 percent of them are eligible for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. Jermaine’s school had a leaky roof, no gym, and no art or music rooms. The school district was consistently on the list of schools to be taken over by the state’s department of education. The names of the people and places studied were changed to protect the participants’ identities, but this study could be talking about any number of communities across Alabama. Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the nation; one in four children there lives in poverty.

The authors followed Jermaine for the span of three years, his 3rd– to 5th grade years. They reviewed a portfolio of Jermaine’s work, observed Jermaine in and out of school, and corresponded with Jermaine and his teacher, Teresa Beardsley. When the study first began, Jermaine lived with his mother, older brother and sister, and an aunt. His family lived in a house, but in his community, homes were inferior to trailers that came with central heat and air conditioning, furnishings, and appliances. Jermaine knew his family was considered to be in the lowest rung of the social circle in Pine Grove: other students had expensive sneakers, while Jermaine’ mom gets his sneakers from Bargaintown. Jermaine got teased a lot.

Jermaine’s performance in school was considered “remarkable”; he was creative, had an advanced vocabulary, and very high achievement scores. However, his intelligence was not cultivated at school; he was bored and became a discipline problem. Administrators and teachers alike described him as “bad”; someone to “keep an eye on.” His teacher, Ms. Beardsley, found that she often had to serve as an advocate for Jermaine.

His mother did not play an active role in his schooling, but he had two uncles from Detroit who brought him toys and paid for his uniforms when he needed them. Jermaine was supported by friends’ families and the football coach who, recognizing the young boy’s intelligence, made Jermaine his starting quarterback. Jermaine gained friends by sharing the books he received from his uncles and, of course, the acclaim that comes with being the school’s quarterback. He dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but explained that he wanted to be a Hollywood film producer first. We never find out if he achieves this dream.

Even though Jermaine’s school offered opportunities for athletics, they did not offer access to gifted and talented programs or other programs that could have nurtured Jermaine’s creativity. Study authors detailed that rural, gifted students face without access to these types of activities:

…within rural school districts acceptance of the status quo and resistance to change made it difficult to initiate new programs for gifted students. Along with limited financial resources for programs perceived as benefiting a few students, rural schools were unable to provide adequate specialized teachers, counselors, school psychologists, and curriculum specialists to assist in providing appropriate services for high-ability youngsters. (p. 202)

Inadequate funding for poor, rural school districts perpetuates the acceptance of the status quo. In July 2015, EdBuild released a map of student poverty rates for 13,000 school districts. They found in many cases, “school districts of dramatically different income levels are next-door neighbors, or even sit, island-like, within one another.” And in many Southern school districts, there is significant variation in student poverty rates between schools. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentration of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.

I’m glad that Jermaine’s story has remained with me all these years. It puts a face to all those data points. Jermaine is a creative, caring young man who wants to thrive despite his circumstances. As we try to figure out solutions to improve educational opportunity for low-income students, it’s important that we don’t forget there are thousands of other students like Jermaine. Poor students can be smart, too, but our educational system is still failing too many of them.

In Mississippi: Reaching for Adequate and Efficient Public Education for All

On Tuesday, Mississippi voters defeated Initiative 42, an amendment to the state constitution that would have forced the state to provide an “adequate and efficient” public education for all children. Specifically, the initiative tried to enforce the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), a funding formula that requires the state to fund school districts at adequate levels. Since 1997, school districts have only been funded twice at MAEP-required levels. Critics of the bill said Initiative 42 would have taken the funding allocation power away from legislators and given courts control over the funding process, allowing courts to move money away from “good schools” and “put it in other places.”

While Mississippi legislators are happy they still get to control public education funding, students are suffering. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT Data Center, Mississippi ranks 50th in the nation in child well-being. In 2013, over a third of children there lived in poverty, a four percent increase since 2008. To further illustrate this point, almost three out of every four children in Mississippi are low-income, the highest rate in the nation.

Mississippi children are not showing up for kindergarten ready to learn—kindergarten that Mississippians fought so hard for. Research shows positive links between quality early childhood education and high school graduation rates. This research is fact in Mississippi: over half of Mississippi children do not attend preschool and 32 percent do not graduate high school on time.

National data show that students in low-income families are six times more likely to attend a high-poverty school—schools that are typically not “adequately” funded. Over the six-year period from 2008 to 2015, Mississippi decreased state funding by $623 per pupil. With the rejection of Initiative 42, will this downward trend in funding continue or will Mississippi’s legislators use their power to ensure that all of Mississippi’s children have access to quality education? Mississippi’s education governor, William Winter, deserves the last word here:

Education will always be an issue. The quality of education of our people is still going to leave a lot to be desired. Regardless of how far we go, we still have so much further to go [because] education, adequate education, is more important now than it ever has been because there are very few things people can do now without having a basic framework of education. When I was growing up, there would be good jobs for people who couldn’t even sign their name. But now you can’t have a satisfying, satisfactory life unless you have a good education. The key now lies, it seems to me, in doing whatever it takes to reduce that number of people who, for whatever reason, have never been able to acquire that education. The poorest schools are in the areas that are in need of the best schools. So our willingness to invest more of our resources in education I think is a political priority.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: The Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982

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?


Because of school integration rulings, there was a wave of white flight to private schools in the 1970s. Contrary to the present day, where there happen to be options for marketing for private schools to attract students, back in the 1970s there was nothing like that and yet students were attracted to such institutions. It is believed that in the Jackson school district alone, 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.


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.


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.