The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

May 6, 2013

Mississippi prepares new push on education


The GOP-sponsored measures could mean more big changes for Clarksdale's nine public schools, which would be fine with local attorney and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Luckett.

"We need a cultural shift," said Luckett, who's now running for mayor of Clarksdale. "We need a big war; that's how I look at it."

Though Mississippi lags in education, it has made progress.

A Harvard University study found that Mississippi students posted greater gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than the average among the 41 states it measured. The state ranked 13th out of that group overall for improvement between 1992 and 2011.

In 1980, only 54.8 percent of Mississippi residents 25 and older had a high school diploma according to Census data, compared to 80.4 in 2010. Mississippi improved by 25.6 percentage points while the nation improved 13.9 points to 85.3 percent. The improvement was even steeper in Coahoma County, which includes Clarksdale. The share of adults with a high school diploma rose from 43.8 percent in 1980 to 75 percent in 2010.

But the Harvard study finds that while Mississippi has been able to boost many of its students up to basic achievement levels, most are not yet truly proficient. And while Mississippi has many more high school graduates than 30 years ago, American-born Mississippi adults are still the least likely of those in any state to have a high school diploma.

Improvements are toughest in areas such as Clarksdale, where per capita income is about 78 percent of the national average and the unemployment rate was 13 percent in March. Half of all county children live in poverty, and 90 percent of Clarksdale's 3,200 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Most white children attend private schools, while 97 percent of students in the public system are black. Of children born in Coahoma County, 18.8 percent have a low birth weight. That critical predictor of future problems is more than twice the national rate of 8.1 percent.

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