Bill Winter and Jim Hunt grew up in the pre-Sun Belt South – a South of tenant farmers, of cotton fields, of dirt roads, of racial segregation and poor, underfunded schools.
Winter, from Grenada, Mississippi, and Hunt, from Rock Ridge, North Carolina, would devote much of their lives to a central idea – that the South’s salvation was through improved education.
“How many in this room have picked cotton by hand?” Hunt asked a packed house of several hundred people at the FedEx Global Education Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this month. There were more hands than one might have imagined.
But much of the old cotton economy that required a strong back is gone, and the new economy requires an educated work force.
The crowd had gathered to honor Winter, who is the subject of a new documentary on his life – particularly his heroic effort as Mississippi governor to pass the Mississippi Education Reform Act in 1983. The act sharply increased education funding in Mississippi, including the creation of a kindergarten program.
After the documentary was shown, Winter, 92, and Hunt, 78, a four-term North Carolina governor, sat down to discuss their battles together and the state of education in the South.
The two were part of a wave of progressive, mostly Democratic Southern governors who tried to increase education spending during the last decades of the 20th century. In recent years, most of the South has been headed by Republican governors, who have put a greater emphasis on tax cuts, and alternatives to traditional public education such as vouchers and charter schools.
“There are a lot of people who don’t understand the really critical decisions that have to be made that will enable another generation of Americans to enjoy the fruits of living in this free country of ours,” Winter said.
North Carolina has seen a major drop-off of political support of its public schools from the legislature. It is a bipartisan problem, beginning under the Democrats and continuing apace under the Republicans.
In 1991, North Carolina spending per pupil for secondary and elementary schools was 83 percent of the U.S. average, according to figures in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of School System Finances. (The figures include state and local spending.)
By 2008-09 that has slipped to 81 percent of the U.S. average. In 2009-10 it was 79 percent, in 2011 it was 78 percent, in 2012 it was 77 percent, and in 2013, the last year statistics are available, the decline had stabilized and it was back up to 78 percent of the U.S. average.
In that most recent year, North Carolina ranked 43rd in the country in per-pupil spending on its public schools, and was below the average for Southern states. North Carolina used to be a leader in the South. But in 2013, North Carolina spent less educating its students than such states as South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Virginia, and Louisiana.
Hunt looks at a lot of public opinion polls, and he sees some signs that public opinion is turning back toward supporting public education.
“The people are upset that we are slipping,” Hunt said. “They want to see something done about it at every level. There is great support for this university, for the community colleges, for K-12, for the Smart Start program.”
Hunt said support for public education can be rebuilt, but it must be done in conjunction with the business community, and by involving large numbers of parents and grandparents who are concerned about their kids.
He said it will not be easy because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allows big money to influence elections. But he said public education supporters must be willing to offer themselves for elective office, even if they think politics is a bit unsavory.
“Politics is a tough game,” Hunt said. “Are you willing to let education, public education in particular, go down the drain? Or are you willing to work and fight and scrap for it? I’m going to fight?”
Winter said he comes from a state with a tradition of reactionary politicians such as Theodore Bilbo and Ross Barnett, not progressive figures such as North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham, Terry Sanford and Bill Friday. But even in Mississippi, Winter said, he was able to build a coalition to improve education.
Winter said that people should not listen to cynics who say that change cannot happen.
“I do see the quickening (of public education support) that people spoke of here,” Winter said. “I think people in the country are ready for change in a positive way. And not let the Tea Party dominate the politics of the country and of the people.”