ATLANTA -- The South has been running hard and fast for nearly a decade in hopes of catching the rest of the nation in public education.
The country's poorest region has poured billions of dollars into raising teacher salaries and lowering class sizes while passing reforms to stiffen graduation requirements and raise test scores.
Yet, even as the South was accelerating, the rest of the nation was picking up speed, too, in part because the region's education-reform movement was spreading across the country.
Southern states managed to match the nation stride for stride in raising teacher salaries during the 1980s.
But because they were behind to begin with, southern teachers actually lost ground during the decade.
Last year they earned an average $24,856 each, $4,700 less than the average U.S. teacher.
The South increased its per-pupil spending at a faster rate than the country as a whole from 1982 to 1988.
Yet the region still spends 22 percent -- or $928 -- less on each of its students than the national average each year.
The South's Scholastic Aptitude Test scores improved at twice the national rate from 1982 to 1989, but still wound up well behind the nationwide average.
South Carolina alone increased its average SAT score 48 points -- the biggest increase in the nation -- yet still ranks last among the 50 states.
The South's high school graduation rate pulled within a few percentage points of the U.S. average by 1988, but only four of 12 southern states now have rates higher than the average.
Florida ranks dead last.
"Educational improvement is a moving target. Other states aren't exactly sitting still," said Mark Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a non-profit policy group in Atlanta.
Now, with a second wave of school reform beginning to gather momentum, there is a growing consensus that more radical measures will be needed in the 1990s.
"We are kind of running in place," said Roy Forbes, director of accountability at Public School Forum, a non-profit educational advocacy group based in Raleigh, N.C. "It will take something dramatic to catapult the South to where we should be."
The reforms of the 1980s were anything but dramatic.
The first southern state to pass an education-reform package -- Mississippi, in 1982 -- simply mandated what most of the nation had long required of its schools: It created a kindergarten level and madeschool attendance compulsory.
Florida raised its high school graduation standards in 1983; it boosted teachers' salaries in 1984.
That same year, South Carolina extended its school year, lengthened the school day and raised graduation requirements, and Tennessee increased teacher salaries 10 percent across the board.
Georgia made full-day kindergarten mandatory in 1985.
Along the way, the South did institute some reforms, from Florida's minimum-competency tests for students to Tennessee's merit-pay career ladder for teachers.
But innovation was not the hallmark of southern education in the 1980s.
The emphasis was on improving the existing system with more money and closer state supervision.
In exchange for the boost in state tax revenue, southern school districts accepted increased "accountability" -- more regulations, more tests and more paperwork.
"Reforms took many different dimensions, but accountability for taxpayers' dollars was a central theme," said Thomas Fisher, administrator of statewide testing for the Florida Department of Education.
"The taxpayer agreed to spend additional money but expected to monitor results, data and student achievement," he said.
As a result, some progress was made.
According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, a report compiled periodically for the U.S. Department of Education, southern students were the only ones whose scores in mathematics, science and reading improved during the 1980s.
In reading, southern students pulled out of last place to move ahead of their counterparts in the West in 1984; four years later, they leapfrogged over both the western and central United States.
"We are actually catching up," said former South Carolina Gov. Dick Riley, who jump-started his state's education reform in 1984 with a 1-cent sales tax that now provides more than $200 million a year for education. "We've had tremendously good results."
Others don't agree.
"Except for raising teacher salaries, a good bit of the reforms have been cosmetic, and in some cases have made the system worse," argued former U.S. Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, now a professor of economics and public affairs at the University of Texas in Austin.
"If you have a system encumbered by rules, regulations and tests, and you solve the problem with more rules, regulations and tests, it's going to make things worse," said Mr. Marshall, a leading advocate of educational reform in Texas.