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. 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.


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.

What Matters When You’re Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity

We’ve detailed here on the blog that where you start often determines how far you can go—and for people born in low-wealth neighborhoods, it often means not getting to economic security. Many of these communities have higher crime rates, under-resourced schools, and poor health outcomes that become almost insurmountable barriers to those living there. The odds of overcoming are most discouraging for women and people of color. (For example, see this recent study enumerating the challenges facing black women and families in the rural South.) If we want to strengthen communities that are disconnected from opportunity, we have to understand that the disconnection wasn’t accidental. In many ways, our communities and systems have been built to exclude and draw lines of difference. A history of racist policy, practice, and behavior created these divisions and now, our fear of these communities and what would happen if “their” problems spill beyond neighborhood boundaries drives our treatment of them.

To build an infrastructure of opportunity that is real and universally accessible, we can’t just build ladders for the lucky few to escape from low-wealth communities. We need to change how our systems work in low-wealth communities; that requires reducing segregation, separation, and disenfranchisement. The hostility and dehumanization that low-wealth communities face is most starkly apparent in policing practices. Last month, the Black Lives Matter movement released a 10-point policy plan—Campaign Zero—to reduce police violence. There is an unsurprising overlap between that plan and the kinds of actions that make a strong infrastructure of opportunity.

The plan envisions safer neighborhoods by “limiting police interventions, improving community interactions, and ensuring accountability.” In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Black Lives Matter movement leader Brittany Packnett explained the initial focus on police violence: when the context is hostile, you can’t expect positive outcomes. Addressing what Packnett describes as the “criminalization of blackness of marginalized communities” opens the door to addressing other institutionalized inequities. Packnett emphasized that the Black Lives Matter movement is more broadly about the effects of institutionalized oppression and racism—which lead to crime, poor schooling, poor health care—and noted that “we need to be talking about how to make our communities healthy from the inside out as a means of reducing crime.” (Indeed, recent research shows an indisputable connection between socioeconomic factors and health. Higher levels of employment, income, and education are closely correlated with improved health outcomes for individuals and their families.)

Campaign Zero proposes federal, state, and local agendas. That local agenda is particularly important since improving mobility and increasing access to opportunity can appeal across political lines; cities can act while legislatures and Congress appear stuck. The local recommendations in the Campaign Zero plan are integral to an infrastructure of opportunity: reviewing existing policies, passing new, more inclusive ordinances; training for public safety officials; sharing data; hiring practices that make police forces reflective of the communities they serve; building community partnerships to understand how communities interact with police force; and mobilizing residents to identify structural inequities in their own community and involving them in oversight. Taking these actions requires asking hard questions:

  • How inclusive is the culture of the community’s leadership and institutions?
  • How broad is engagement? How do you ensure authentic engagement?)
  • Can the community forge a leadership group that is cross-system and multi-level, with new voices and meaningful participation?
  • How will data be used to inform difficult conversations about strategies and solutions?

In order for individuals to feel they belong and can thus thrive in and contribute to their communities, we need systems—including policing practices—that are responsive and just, regardless of race, gender, or zip code. It’s important to note that zip codes that have better outcomes for low- and middle-income young people tend to have better outcomes for high-income young people, too, indicating that the types of resources, systems, and investments that matter for economic and educational success are beneficial across the board. By investing in long-term, place-based efforts across the region, we can get closer to providing all Southerners with a chance to belong, thrive, and contribute.

Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity and Innovation

This post originally appeared on the NC Policy Watch blog. To learn more about building an innovation economy in North Carolina, check out a new report from the Budget and Tax Center: Choosing What Works – Let’s Build an Innovation Economy for All.

What’s one thing that all places in North Carolina have in common? From our booming metros to our small towns, from Roanoke Rapids to Cullowhee, income mobility for low-income young people in this state, and in the South in general, is far worse than in other U.S. regions. It’s surprising to learn that even in our most economically dynamic places like Charlotte and the Triangle, people who grow up in families at the low end of the income distribution are likely to stay there as adults, and only small numbers make it to the middle or top. According to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, for young people born in the bottom quintile of the income distribution in the Triangle, 37 percent will stay there as adults, another 29 percent will only move up one quintile, and a mere 5 percent will make it to the highest quintile.

Over the past two decades, Durham has moved from a low-skilled, tobacco-reliant community to become the “City of Medicine” and a Southern center of culture and creativity. Its dynamic, knowledge-based economy is a magnet for the health, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and IT industries. Its universities and Research Triangle Park, both created and sustained through a history of public and private investment, are rich in employers and in the middle-skill jobs that pay living wages for new recruits, boasting an employment rate projected to outstrip the state and the U.S. by 2021. Yet, despite this thriving market, too few youth and young adults who grow up in Durham, particularly youth of color, are getting these good jobs, and too few have the academic and workplace skills to compete with more qualified candidates from other cities and states. Many struggle to find their way through a fragmented collection of institutions and organizations that are working to support young people but are not always well-resourced or working together. Much of this reflects Durham’s history as a tobacco and textile manufacturing center, where employment was not conditioned on education or credentialing, along with a legacy of race-based inequity in educational investment and expectations.

As David Dodson wrote in MDC’s State of the South report, “The result today is ‘two Durhams’—one prosperous and positioned to capitalize on abundant, emerging economic opportunities, and another increasingly disconnected and lacking the education, experience, and social connections needed to connect to prosperity that is close at hand geographically but painfully out of reach.” In that report, we proposed that places like Durham must build an infrastructure of opportunity, or a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to postsecondary credentials and economic opportunity regardless of background. The infrastructure of opportunity is about more than just lifting up young people who are growing up in poverty—it’s about investing in opportunity for all young people so the community has a strong foundation for long-term success. The places that have better outcomes for low- and middle-income young people tend to have better outcomes for high-income young people, too (see Equality of Opportunity Project), indicating that the types of resources, systems, and investments that matter for the economic and educational success of young people are beneficial across the board.

A new partnership of private-sector, education, government, and civic leaders in Durham believes in that kind of investment. The goal of Made in Durham’s high-level, cross-sector leadership is to equip Durham youth with the credentials and experience required to gain entry-level, living wage employment in the sectors that are driving the local economy. Made in Durham seeks to support and enable an education-to-career system that addresses historic disparities. Central to its work is a deliberate strategy to advocate for the alignment of demand and supply—a strategy that will satisfy the needs of employers and young people. That requires engaging major employers as strategists, advocates, funders, and lead participants in creating career pathways and work-based learning opportunities while simultaneously investing deeply in youth engagement to give young people, especially those poorly served by existing systems, a strong voice in strategy-setting and design.

The work began in 2013 when the Made in Durham Task Force was convened to examine what it would take to ensure that young people succeed in the labor market and that employers benefit from more home-grown talent. In Durham, a health-care innovator and then CEO of the region’s largest employer, Duke University Health System, Dr. Victor Dzau, recruited change-oriented peers to populate the task force. He was attracted to join the effort not only because of the hospital’s role as a major employer, but also because of the growing recognition in the public health field of “the social determinants of health”— the concept that weak health and social outcomes are directly related to levels of economic inequality present in a society. Addressing youth employment by connecting young people to living-wage jobs offered Durham a lever to narrow income inequality and raise health outcomes.

During 18 months of research and planning, the Task Force was staffed by MDC and supported by a Policy Working Group composed of senior executives from each of the public partners and additional representatives from the nonprofit, academic, and employment sectors to provide operational expertise and perspective to the Task Force. Both groups wrestled with how to gather data, track progress, and  organize and align resources—existing and new—most effectively.  At the end of the design phase, Made in Durham Task Force members incorporated a nonprofit organization with a small staff to serve as a backbone organization and convener for the partners.  Members of the Policy Working Group continue to advise, and a youth network has been carefully recruited to reflect the diversity of Durham’s youth population. This network includes young people in high school, college, and alternative education programs. Two representatives will be voting members of Made in Durham’s board, and the group is planning youth-led action research projects for the coming year.

Many Task Force members have transitioned to board service, thus maintaining a leadership group composed of top business CEOs; education and public sector leaders, including the Superintendent of Durham Public Schools, President of Durham Technical Community College, Chancellor of North Carolina Central University, the Durham City Manager and Durham County Manager; and community advocates. This board is distinctive in that it is employer-led, and every member— private, public and nonprofit—is a CEO or the highest ranking member of their organization, able to make decisions and commit resources. The board’s primary objective is to foster alignment between the talent development system (education and workforce) and major employers in growth sectors of the economy. In the near term, their task is to support frontline education and workforce institutions—Durham Public Schools, Durham Technical Community College, North Carolina Central University and the Workforce Development Board—as they construct career pathways that lead to post-secondary credentials and good jobs. (The first pathway, in health and life sciences, will serve as a prototype for subsequent ones.) This year, Made in Durham partners also supported the City’s Youth Works Internship program with additional recruitment efforts for summer jobs, an important step in marshaling private sector leadership to provide substantive work-based learning for youth in sectors that are driving the Durham economy. In the longer term, the role of Made in Durham board, staff, and partners is to help shift the culture so that employers see youth investment as a part of doing business—and doing smart business, not just charitable business—in the Research Triangle.

This post includes contributions from MDC’s Abby Parcell, David Dodson, and Richard Hart. 

What’s college for?

You’ve heard it before: college isn’t for everyone. People who say that often have a pretty narrow definition of “college”, but in reality, postsecondary credentials focus on a wide array of skills and knowledge, come from richly varied types of institutions, and have vastly differing labor market purposes and economic returns. Given this variety, it’s understandable that there’s little clarity about the purpose of higher education and whether or not postsecondary study is the right decision for a given individual. Peter Thiel, who infamously offered to pay young people not to go to college, thinks the system sells itself mainly as an insurance policy but is actually a tournament “in which the intensity of the competition is what somehow validates the tournament.” He points out that confusion about the purpose of college prevents us from designing a system that produces better outcomes for any one purpose.

We often talk about college as an investment decision, that a given program will give a person the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the labor market. Particularly in two-year college systems, there is an emphasis on avoiding enrolling students in programs without a strong return on investment. Limited resources for these colleges and competing priorities can create incentives for a narrow focus on skills for occupations that seem to be growing. While a combination of real-time job opening data and labor market projections can help target programmatic offerings, unpredictable innovations and macroeconomic trends still cause a lot of uncertainty. “[T]he economy bounces all over the place in terms of jobs, particularly for these jobs that we hear are ’hot’ all the time, like tech jobs,” Peter Cappelli explains in an interview with The Atlantic. “The reason that they’re hot is precisely because you can’t predict them.” This is more problematic now than it used to be, because the role of employers in training employees has shifted. Here’s Cappelli:

A few generations ago the employers used to look for smart or adaptable kids on college campuses with general skills. They would convert them to what they wanted inside the company and they would retrain them and they’d get different skills. They’re not doing that now. They’re just expecting that the kids will show up with the skills that the employer needs when the employer needs them.

If we design educational pathways that focus a student too specifically on one career or occupation, we risk developing parallel systems of higher education for students based on socioeconomic background: adaptable skills for the affluent to compete in an ever-changing knowledge economy, and narrow skills for low- and moderate-income students to get a technical job right now. By reducing investment in public education and tying resources to immediate labor market outcomes, we risk pushing colleges into credentialing students with targeted sets of skills that may or may not have much value ten years from now.

How can we prepare students who do not have the luxury of exploration—who need the economic boost of a credential, and as soon as possible, while still making sure their education has long-term value? How can we make sure students are developing the skills they will need to compete in an unpredictable future labor market?

To start, we can make sure that students are actually making their own well-informed choices about what their educational path will be. We can work to ensure that the options a young person has are not limited by their family income by better aligning postsecondary programs (from short-term credentials, to two-year degrees, to four-year degrees and beyond), and by advocating for college affordability, effective financial aid policies, and better support systems for low-income students. We can work to make sure that extracurricular participation and opportunities for job experience are not dependent on family income.

There is no reason not to embed adaptable skill development into technical, career-oriented programs. The way students learn, and the type of thinking they are familiar with, has a huge impact on their preparedness for jobs and future education. A great example of this comes from Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) in Martinsville, Virginia, where students in all programs and disciplines are taught using cooperative learning. This pedagogical method emphasizes active learning where students are interdependent and accountable. The pedagogy, regardless of curriculum, is a form of skills development, with students increasing their capacity for critical thinking and teamwork.

I spoke with Greg Hodges, PHCC’s Dean of Academic Success and College Transfer, about how cooperative learning can prevent colleges from making implicit judgements about students’ capabilities or what type of work they are suitable for. He told me that community college faculty and staff are hungry for better pedagogical strategies; traditional approaches aren’t sufficient for the learning challenges many low-income students who haven’t received a strong education face. When faculty are just given the syllabus and materials and not trained to teach, they fall back on the model of their own education, but often that style does not suit a wide range of student learning styles. Cooperative learning “infuses in students the ability to learn regardless of the discipline,” Hodges says, even for the students who come to PHCC for short-term training. Those problem-solving and teamwork skills are valued by employers, but students also are prepared for more complex and rigorous educational programs.

The stakes, and the pressure, could not be higher. “Community college faculty are being asked to keep the middle class alive,” according to Hodges. The pressure to quickly implement reforms does not leave colleges with much time to prepare for unintended effects on vulnerable student populations. While there is some awareness of those effects, especially right now as the nuances of structural racism are reaching public consciousness, college faculty and staff are afraid to broach the subject and may feel there is little they can do. Shrinking levels of investment in public education and policies that do not adequately support reform implementation are central to the problem, PHCC’s focus on engaging pedagogy offers some hope: previously large achievement gaps along lines of race and income in gateway English and developmental math have narrowed as the college has expanded cooperative learning.

PHCC was recognized this year by Achieving the Dream with the Leah Meyer Austin Award; the college created the Southern Center for Active Learning Excellence to train other community college faculty in cooperative learning techniques. 


Intention vs. Impact

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that an important component of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which protects against housing discrimination, still stands. They upheld a lower court ruling that allowed disparate impact claims. As Vox explains:

A disparate impact claim means that regardless of intent, a law results in discrimination. This means that appellants only have to prove that a law’s impact results in discrimination, and not the additional claim that the writers of the law intended it to have that impact.

This idea, that impact matters regardless of intent, is critical to dismantling structural racism in the United States. We are not able to rely on an assessment of whether an individual or institution intends to be racist, because “agencies and businesses seldom announce that they are engaging in purposeful discrimination,” Adam Liptak explained in the New York Times. “’Disparate impact,’ on the other hand, can be proved using statistics.” Intention is particularly hard to measure because most people carry around unconscious or implicit bias. You may not know that your decisions and actions are often tainted by prejudice, but not consciously intending that prejudice does not mean there is no impact. Impact is compounded when bias goes beyond the individual level and drives the practices and policies of organizations and systems, leading to, for example, high levels of residential segregation even though housing and real estate discrimination is illegal.

This ruling is important because residential segregation is a huge barrier to an equitable infrastructure of opportunity in the US. As we said in a recent post about the high costs of transit and housing, where you live has a major impact on your access to a quality education and good jobs:

In the South, the typical metro resident can only access 26 percent of that metro’s jobs within 90 minutes via transit—lower than any other region. For suburban metro residents in the South, it’s less than 20 percent. And jobs near high-poverty neighborhoods have declined substantially since 2000 in most US and Southern metros, especially for many high-poverty suburban Southern neighborhoods.

Earlier this week, a study by Sean Reardon at Stanford Graduate School of Education showed that regardless of income, black and Hispanic families live in neighborhoods with lower median income levels than white and Asian families. This NYT graphic shows how a moderate-income black family is likely to live in a lower-income neighborhood than a low-income white family is:


Source: New York Times

The study confirms that low-income young people often have very different experiences depending on the neighborhood and the metro that they live in:

Low-income households in the Washington, DC, or Minneapolis, MN, metropolitan areas, for example, are typically located in neighborhoods similar to those of middle- or higher-income households in Atlanta, GA, Los Angeles, CA, and other metropolitan areas. As a result, children growing up in poor households in metropolitan areas such as Washington and Minneapolis may have, on average, more access to high-quality schools and other forms of opportunity than equally poor (or middleclass) children in metropolitan areas such as Atlanta or Los Angeles.

This week’s Supreme Court decision is an important step toward providing equal housing opportunity, but as this 2012 ProPublica investigation showed, we haven’t always made use of the tools at our disposal to push for less housing discrimination. The nation’s highest court has reaffirmed this important legal route for challenging segregation, but there is still a tremendous amount of work needed to ensure all Americans have access to a high-quality infrastructure of opportunity.