At a time when states shudder about how to pay for programs with shrinking tax revenues and federal grants, Mississippi is grappling with a proposed $60 million tax increase to solve a problem other states dealt with decades ago: education.
Gov. William F. Winter ordered the legislature into special session here last week to ponder costly education reform at a time when businesses are closing, farmers are going belly up and unemployment stands at 12.4 percent. Federal cutbacks have hurt those who depend on government transfer payments, the largest revenue producer after manufacturing in America's poorest, least-educated state.
Now, almost two decades after Mississippi all but abandoned its public schools to fight integration, its heritage of neglect has come back hauntingly in charts, graphs and reports that its scholarly, bespectacled governor has thrown at legislators to get them off their "bottoms and get Mississippi off the bottom."
In unveiling his ambitious program of statewide public kindergartens, reading aides, increases in abysmally low teacher pay, an effective compulsory school attendance law and other reforms last week, Winter mourned high-technology industry lost to other Sun Belt states with better educated workers.
"Wherever we go to attract industry, the biggest single obstacle that we run into is the concern over our lack of skilled people," he told the state House. "It is now bullet-biting time in Mississippi. It is time to put up or shut up. Unless we improve our education system, we will never move out of last place."
The 122-member House took a historic first step Saturday night when it narrowly passed the reform package and a $90 million tax increase that includes raises for state employes. The programs now go to an ultraconservative Senate that reconvenes today and whose leaders have vowed to fight new taxes for public education.
Mississippi's 1981 high school class had the nation's highest dropout rate, 42 percent, compared to 10 percent nationwide. At least half of those over 18 have no high school education and, among adults over 25, the figure is higher. For every 100 students who finish high school, 59 drop out before graduating.
Mississippi lags far behind the rest of the South, where the average dropout rate is 38 students for every 100 who finish, according to the Southern Growth Policies Board Task Force on Education. Outside the South, the ratio is 25 of 100.
Southern parents are less educated than parents in other parts of the country and, while test scores have improved, southern children still score below the national mean. Every southern state spends less on public school students than other states. The national average is $2,010 per pupil, while Mississippi spends $1,090.
"We're not just last, we're dead last," education analyst Tom Satterfiel told a Senate education subcommittee here. "We don't put children in school to brainwash them. But you're going to pay their taxes, their welfare, unemployment or jails if they don't go to school."
Winter calls statistics portraying Mississippi as an underdeveloped country "a scandal." The state has the nation's lowest per capita income ($6,500) and ranks No. 1 in infant mortality, teen pregnancy and birth defects. Only Vermont pays its teachers less. The average annual salary here is $13,000.
The Army rejects 35 percent of Mississippi volunteers because they flunk standardized intelligence tests, the worst military rejection rate in the country. The national rate is 9 percent.
"It's really sad when Mississippi men aren't even smart enough to be cannon fodder," said Ray Mabus, 33, a Harvard lawyer who left a Washington, D.C., practice to come home as Winter's legislative liaison for education reform.
For state certification, teacher applicants need only hold a college degree and score a minimum of 850 on the national teacher examination, a score so low that only 3 percent flunk nationwide.
To pay for the reforms, Winter wants oil and gas severance taxes boosted from 6 to 9 percent at a time when declining production and a glut of cheap oil have leveled such revenues in oil-producing states.
Charles (Charlie Boy) Williams, chief oil industry lobbyist, paints a grim picture of oil rigs departing for states with lower severance taxes, higher strike ratios and shallower fields.
"We're not big bad guys, but it's a bottom-line issue," he said of the proposed 30-cent tax increase on a $30 barrel of oil. "It's anti-business. We're a blue-chip industry under attack by a governor with a vendetta."
Winter's aides argue that Louisiana's 12 1/2 percent tax on resources "severed" from the ground hardly soured drilling there. Besides, the tax can be "exported" to consumers in other states, they contend.
As the nation's 10th largest oil producer, Mississippi reaped $113 million from the severance tax last year, the state's third biggest revenue source behind declining sales and income taxes. The oil and gas tax has not been raised since 1944.
Still, some vow not one penny for education during the hardest economic times since the Great Depression in a state that already spends half of its budget on schools.
For example, Rep. Tommy Horne of Meridian, after hearing Winter's speech last week, cast the sole vote against funding the special session.
"I'm not worried about the state losing jobs," he said. "Industry will still come down because we got plenty of cheap labor that doesn't take years to train. They can import the high-tech people from up North."
Not everyone agrees. Of manufacturers that came here from the North, Rep. Jim Simpson, the governor's floor leader, said, "They changed our people from picking cotton to sewing cuffs on shirts. Now that the greener pastures are in Hong Kong, all our people can do is sew in textile factories , and we can't prepare them for an economy that demands more because we don't have the tax base to pay for education."
Robert Clark, the House education committee chairman who narrowly missed becoming the state's first black congressman last month, gives the governor's proposal for free, statewide kindergartens only a "slim" chance.
More than half of the estimated 40,000 5-year-olds do not attend a preschool program in Mississippi, the only state without free statewide kindergartens. Federally funded kindergartens are available to slow learners in 33 of 153 school districts.
Head Start programs feed and train 28,000 3-to-5-year-olds from mostly poor black families. Private preschools are available for those who can afford them.
Lingering racial prejudice among white legislators is a "factor" behind those figures, Clark suggested.
Added Simpson: "You hear them say, 'I'm not building a babysitting service for black children,' and I've cleaned up their remarks. They see kindergartens as another Head Start program for blacks."
Critics say House Speaker H.R. (Buddy) Newman, 61, a soybean farmer on retainer to a gas pipeline company, singlehandedly killed kindergartens last session by gaveling the legislature to a close before proponents could introduce the bill.
Newman said he favors the oil tax increase, if only to satisfy critics who accuse him of conflict of interest.
The legislature abolished compulsory school attendance in 1956, and a Mississippi State University study found that 3,000 students never even showed up for first grade. Of those who did, 16 percent had to repeat, costing the state $11 million.
"Working class children, black and white, fall through the cracks," said Rims Barber, director of the Children's Defense Fund.
Free kindergartens would save the state millions of dollars, boost school performance and cut dropouts, said LeRoy Lizana, superintendant of Pass Christian, the only district with locally funded kindergartens. CAPTION: Picture, Gov. William F. Winter . . . pushing $60 million oil tax increase.