By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON — Over the past three decades in Mississippi, few people have matched Andy Mullins’ expertise in education policies and practices.
Mullins, 65, will retire June 30 from most of his responsibilities at the University of Mississippi, where he’s chief of staff to the chancellor, associate professor of education and liaison to the Legislature. He will continue working part-time with the Mississippi Teacher Corps, which trains college graduates to work as educators in some of the most impoverished school districts in one of the impoverished states in the nation.
Mullins was one of the “Boys of Spring,” the young staffers who helped Democratic Gov. William Winter persuade recalcitrant lawmakers to pass the Education Reform Act of 1982. (The pejorative nickname was tagged on the group by a longtime senator who had little love for them. They embraced it.)
The Education Reform Act had 17 programs or studies, including the requirement for public schools to offer kindergarten. There’s still no mandate for 5-year-olds to attend kindergarten, only for schools to offer it.
Educating little children might not sound subversive now, but Mullins said: “Kindergarten was a threat to the hegemony of the old ruling elite of the Delta.”
Delta lawmakers held top posts in the 1982 Legislature, and they came from the white gentry in a largely agricultural region with a significant black population. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to racially segregated public schools in its 1954 ruling on a Kansas case, Brown vs. Board of Education. However, it was the early 1970s before Mississippi schools finally made serious efforts to integrate. The Education Reform Act, a dozen years later, was considered by many lawmakers who’d been in office when segregation was the norm.
After Winter left office, Mullins worked for one other governor (Democrat Bill Allain, who served from 1984 to 1988, following Winter), three state superintendents of education and three Ole Miss chancellors.
Mullins completed a doctorate in higher education administration in 1992 and is co-director of the Teacher Corps. Along with Tom Burnham, a former state superintendent of education, he co-founded the Mississippi Principal Corps, which teaches leadership and management skills.
Mullins was the point person in bringing a 2008 presidential debate to Ole Miss. He has been involved in William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and the Lott Leadership Institute, both on the Oxford campus. He also has worked with the privately funded Barksdale Reading Institute, which focuses on improving youngsters’ literacy skills.
In an interview this past week, Mullins told The Associated Press that the Principal Corps was founded in response to a chronic complaint he heard from Teacher Corps participants, about working with “poorly trained, overworked, stressed-out principals.”
Teacher Corps participants have expressed two other chronic frustrations over the years, he said. One is about the wide range of reading levels in any given classroom: Some high school students might be ready to do college-level work, while others might not be able to read at fifth grade level. The other is about the “crab-in-the-bucket effect” of middle school and high school students who try to prevent academically talented peers from advancing, by making fun of the smart kids or even shunning them.
“If you’ve seen crabs in a bucket — if one tries to get out, the others pull it back,” Mullins said. “It’s very depressing.”
Mullins said he uses his behind-the-scenes experience in politics as he teaches future educators. They, too, must know how to give and take.
“Gov. Winter taught me a valuable lesson,” Mullins said. “You don’t burn bridges. The guy who votes against you today may vote with you tomorrow.... You learn to compromise. Compromise is how you get things done.”