Education: A Strong State Economy Starts Here | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Education: A Strong State Economy Starts Here

Photo by Kristin Brenemen

Janice Parker was 15 when she had her daughter, Adrianna. She had a supportive family and teachers at Lanier High School, but she dropped out of school anyway due to "lack of motivation," she says.

When Adrianna was 3 years old, she went with her mother to the restaurant where she worked, and announced she wanted to work there, too. Janice Parker realized at about that time that her daughter was paying attention to everything she did or said.

"I looked up, and I was 18, and I'm just looking at this little person, and I'm just like, I've got to be able to tell her one day, 'You know what, you've got to go to school, even if you don't feel like going to school today,'" Parker said. "I had to get to the point where I was leading by example."

Parker studied to get her GED, writing the required essay about her daughter and her experiences as a teen parent. Her hard work paid off, in her own life, and also in her daughter's.

"I went on to get an associate's degree, and now, in May, Lord willing, she's getting ready to graduate high school and go to college herself," she said.

It's not just teenage mothers like Parker who set classes aside to raise children; Jackson Public Schools has a problem with dropouts in general. In 2009, JPS had a graduation rate of 74.1 percent. This year, however, the graduation rate had dropped to 63.6 percent.

Research shows that struggling schools and low education levels hurt individuals as well as the state as a whole, bringing economic and social challenges. Fortunately, people outside the educational community are starting to talk about how Mississippi can make its schools—and work force—better.

'Human Capital' Needed
Business leaders from across the state and around the country now say that a modern work force cannot be undereducated, even in an economy like Mississippi's that trends heavily toward agriculture and manufacturing. In a recent survey of more than 2,000 business and community leaders across the state, increasing Mississippians' educational achievement ranked as the top priority for the state.

The survey comes from the Blueprint Mississippi 2011 report, released about the same time as the beginning of this year's legislative session.

To produce the report, agencies, universities and business leaders studied the state's economy and work force in relation to states with comparable economies. The Mississippi Economic Council coordinated the project.

The report says the Blueprint research is "a starting point for what will be an ongoing dialogue for improving the economic future of the state," and it is full of recommendations for how Mississippi can improve its economic standing and quality of life.

Blueprint Mississippi calls for a better, more accessible educational system, but not just for philosophical reasons or learning for learning's sake; in a state with high poverty, more education could pay off in concrete—and critical—ways.

In Mississippi, the median annual earnings for someone with a high-school diploma or GED are more than $7,000 higher than for someone who did not finish high school. For those with some college education or an associate's degree, that number rises to almost $12,000.

A bachelor's degree makes a $21,000 difference, and a graduate degree means an extra $32,000 or more each year.

Despite the economic benefits that often come with higher levels of education, Mississippi has a level of educational attainment far below the national average—and lower salaries to match it. The Mississippi Economic Policy Center found that 13.5 percent of Mississippi's work force lacks a high-school diploma. That's a higher percentage than in the United States as a whole, where 10.5 percent of the work force did not graduate from high school, and in the South overall, where 11.5 percent of the work force has less than a high school education.

Census figures show that the percentage of Mississippians who get high school, bachelor's and higher degrees has risen steadily within the past decade or so, although only Texas has a lower percentage of high-school graduates than Mississippi.

MEPC director Ed Sivak said education must remain a top priority for legislators.

"The bottom line is that if we don't make the necessary investment in education at all levels ... it's going to be harder to build the work force that we need for local businesses to be successful and to attract (larger businesses)," he said.

Blake Wilson, president and CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council, said Mississippi's economy has undergone a structural shift within the last 15 to 20 years, and the amount of education people need to get jobs is changing along with it. Small-town manufacturing companies that paid low wages and required little education are gone, he said, replaced by computer-operated factories run by companies such as Packard, Nissan, Toyota and the Severstal steel facility that often draw employees from several counties.

"Back when I was a kid, if you'd go through the GM plant in my home state (of Delaware), it was a pretty dirty, noisy place—a bunch of burly guys torqueing bolts and things like that," he explained. "Well, today if you go through a Packard plant, those same functions are there, (but) they're either being done by a robot or by robotic assist. ... Today, you can't just have a big burly person lifting that torqueing tool and making it happen; today it's got to be somebody who can follow the computer steps to lower that machine and make sure that (work) is done.

"It cannot be somebody who's uneducated. They have to have at least a high-school education and usually some additional certification. That is the manufacturing plant of today."

To succeed economically, Mississippi needs to develop its "human capital," Sivak said, which means a healthy population with access to high-quality, well-funded education at all levels, from kindergarten through the university level, as well as community colleges for continuing education.

Early-Childhood Debate
The Blueprint report looks at human capital even earlier than kindergarten.

"If we are going to build toward a solid economic foundation in this state, it starts with babies," said Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children's Defense Fund. She served on the educational achievement subcommittee that helped write the Blueprint Mississippi report.

The report argues that early childhood education should be a key strategy in the effort to raise Mississippians' educational achievement levels, because children's learning in the first few years of life affects their educational success later. The Southern Education Foundation reported that in 2008, one out of 14 kindergarteners and one out of 15 first-graders in Mississippi schools had to repeat their grade. The report said that if children are not ready academically when they enter kindergarten, they are more likely to do poorly in school and are less likely to graduate. The same report found that almost half of 3- and 4-year-olds in Mississippi do not go to preschool.

Blueprint Mississippi explains that beginning education early makes a long-term difference, especially in poor states like Mississippi.

"Implementing quality early childhood education is a proven strategy to overcome poverty and give Mississippi's youngest people opportunities later in life," the Blueprint report said, adding that the return on investment for strong pre-kindergarten programs ranges from about $7 to $12 in benefits for every dollar spent on pre-K over a 40-year period.

Low-income children typically come to school with smaller vocabularies than their peers, and kindergarten classes may move too fast for them to catch up. In Mississippi, with high levels of poverty and many parents who have low levels of education themselves, strong pre-kindergarten programs could give children preparation for school that their parents are unable to provide.

While some public schools offer pre-K programs targeted toward low-income children, independent preschool programs may or may not prepare children for kindergarten. The Blueprint report suggests creating an umbrella entity to streamline existing pre-K programs and align them with the state's K-12 public schools.

"Building an early childhood education system is critical to having children at the school ready to learn and stay on task," Fitzgerald said. "So many of our children come to school behind and stay behind, and it puts strain not only on the child, but the system itself." Having children at different levels in kindergarten puts a strain on teachers, especially in a system as underfunded as Mississippi's, Fitzgerald said, where schools often do not have enough teachers' assistants to go around.

Right now, several different types of preschools and day cares provide some kind of pre-kindergarten education to children in Mississippi: Head Start, pre-K programs in traditional public-school systems, privately run preschools and informal day cares located in homes.

"We would like to see all of those entities be aligned, to have their curriculum and their programs—their early learning strategies—aligned with the public schools system, so that as children exit those early childhood settings they have been assessed and have the capacities they need to perform at pre-K to kindergarten levels, and in grades one through three," she said.

While some programs in Mississippi are helping align the various pre-kindergarten programs, Fitzgerald said some children still enter kindergarten more prepared than others.

Budgeting Woes
New programs cost money, however. To invest in education in an era of tightening budgets, Sivak said the state should look at ways to raise revenue instead of just making cuts.

That doesn't seem likely, judging from Gov. Phil Bryant's budget proposal, which calls on school districts to dig deep into any reserves they might have to offset shortfalls in the state's funding.

The Department of Education estimated that funding Mississippi's Adequate Education Program—the formula for adequate funding for public schools—will cost more than $2.2 billion. That's a big number, but it makes sense when one considers that MAEP makes up the bulk of funding for kindergarten through 12th-grade public schools.

MAEP is a formula that, in theory, ensures that even the most low-income, rural school districts in Mississippi get the minimum amount of funding they need to do their job of educating children. The law, passed by the Legislature in 1994, requires the state to allot a certain amount of money to each school district every year, based primarily on how many students it enrolls.

Wilson said the rationale behind MAEP is that even in districts without a wealthy tax base to support schools, students will still get a basic level of funding each year.

"If you're in Rankin County or down on the Coast or in Hattiesburg or Tupelo, you've got plenty of tax revenue. In other words, you've got a good tax base; you can fund your schools," he said.

"You get out into rural Mississippi—Sharkey County, Issaquena, Carroll County, moving on down the list—the tax base isn't sufficient. You could raise people's taxes all you wanted, but there wouldn't be enough of a base to fund the schools."

The problem is, the Legislature has only sent the state's schools "adequate" funding three times in the past decade.

Mississippi ranked 46th out of 51 in per-pupil spending in the 2008-2009 school year, the last year for which figures are available. During that year, Mississippi spent $8,075 per student on education, $4,719 of that on teachers' salaries and other costs related to instruction. At the time, the national average for per-pupil spending was $10,499. But that was before the Legislature started budgeting during a nationwide recession, and Mississippi failed to fund MAEP four years in a row.

Shortly before he left office, former Gov. Haley Barbour made his annual budget recommendations, which suggested allotting just under $2 billion for the program, a 2 percent cut from fiscal year 2012. Barbour suggested that school districts draw from reserve funds to fill in any gaps.

At about the same time, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, chaired by current Gov. Bryant, recommended level funding for MAEP—no cuts, but nothing to get funding up to "adequate" levels, either.

Bryant's budget, which he released after taking office, recommends level funding for the program, but only achieves that by requiring districts to put up almost $73 million from their reserves. However, in 2008, the state auditor and Department of Education officials said that most districts do not have reserve funds. Most create cash-flow reserves when local taxes come in, but spend them throughout the rest of the year, rather than saving them to offset state budget cuts.

Wilson said he understands that everything got cut during the recession, but education should be the top priority when the economy comes back.

Charter School Conundrum
The Blueprint report also made a few controversial recommendations, such as endorsing charter schools—schools that receive public funds, but are privately operated and have more leeway when it comes to teaching styles and standards than traditional public schools.

Proponents of charter schools say they clear the way for innovation needed to revive America's educational system, such as longer school days and greater freedom in hiring teachers. They point to charter schools whose students make astonishing academic leaps, while some skeptics point to charter schools whose students did worse than their peers.

Others, such as Fitzgerald, say some charter schools help a few students while leaving far more out in the cold—or even make it easier to push lower-performing students out of charter schools entirely.

Some lawmakers have tried to get charter schools in Mississippi for years. Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the Legislature passed "some very, very watered-down legislation" in 2010 after a long debate about what place charter schools should have in Mississippi's educational system. Under the current law, schools must be rated low performing or lower for three consecutive years before they can be turned into charter schools. Then, at least half of the parents at the school must petition the state Board of Education to create a charter school.

Tollison wants laws that make it easier for charter schools to come to Mississippi.

"Hopefully, I think the Legislature will look at the charter-school issue, because there are certain failing districts and districts that are not performing up to par," he said.

One bill currently before the Legislature, Senate Bill 2242, would make it easier to start charter schools, but they would still be accountable to federal testing standards outlined under the No Child Left Behind Act. If students at the charter school don't make progress for two consecutive years, the school could lose its charter.

Since Mississippi doesn't have any charter schools, yet, lawmakers have the benefit of looking at what other states have tried, such as the KIPP Delta Public Schools in West Helena, Ark., Tollison said. He hopes charter schools could attract more Teach for America teachers who are interested in charter schools into Mississippi classrooms—another of the Blueprint recommendations.

"Sometimes kids, just like you and me, react differently to different environments," he said. "... Let's give it a try; we've never tried it."

SB 2242 also gives preference to charter schools run by programs that have operated successfully in other states, like schools run by KIPP, or the Knowledge Is Power Program. KIPP has schools in 20 states and the District Columbia, many of them in low-income areas.

Teachers in KIPP schools must commit to longer school days and availability to help with homework after school hours. Other charter schools specialize in science and technology, or organize curriculum around ethnic studies.

The Blueprint report gives a cautious recommendation to use charter schools in low-performing districts in Mississippi—not as widely as some lawmakers would like. Fitzgerald is skeptical of more lenient charter-school legislation, however.

"The recommendation of charter schools came at the tail end of the process (of deciding on Blueprint recommendations), and it really was not thoroughly discussed by members of the education subcommittee," she said, "so there is some reticence about that recommendation from some members of the subcommittee."

Fitzgerald said she recognizes that charter schools are probably coming to Mississippi, but said the state must be careful to set up a program that does not draw already-limited funds away from traditional public schools to serve a subset of children.

"(We must make sure that) we have a system that's fair to all children and that charters serve children who are currently in the public school system if there are to be charters," she said.

If SB 2242 passes, charter schools converted from existing public schools would have to serve children enrolled in the original schools. New, "open-enrollment charter schools"— ones not converted from existing schools—could draw students from a wider area. The bill would also allow outside entities, like the KIPP organization, to start charter schools.

Seeing What's Needed
At Lanier, Janice Parker wants to improve the public schools Jackson has now, starting with parents, students and teachers. Adrianna, who is now a senior at Lanier herself, is involved in several dropout-prevention programs and plans to go to Jackson State University or Tougaloo College.

Parker is especially proud of Adrianna because she plans to be a teacher. "I like that, because she can see what's needed now," she said.

Now a billing specialist at Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center, Parker has coached her daughter in the importance of an education, not just in high school, but continuing on through college. She hopes that Adrianna will be like some of the teachers she had when she was in high school.

"I was a young teen parent when I was here at Lanier, and some of my teachers are here teaching my daughter," she said. "It wasn't like they looked down on me because I was a teen mom; they encouraged me to keep going."

Parker said her teachers were like her "mom at school," even though teen moms often think they're grown up and don't need to finish high school.

"If you miss a day from school, they asked, 'Why are you not at school?' They're calling your house. That's called genuine concern," she said.

Read the whole Blueprint report at

Better Schools, Safer Cities
A 2008 study by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found that high-school dropouts are three and one-half times more likely than high-school graduates to be arrested, and more than eight times more likely to be incarcerated. On average, a 10-percent increase in the graduation rate has historically reduced murder and assault rates by 20 percent. Here's what the report estimates that would mean for Mississippi:

• A 10-percent increase in the state's graduation rate could prevent 45 murders each year.
• It could also mean 870 fewer aggravated assaults each year.
• Raising the male graduation rate by 10 percent would save taxpayers $133 million on crime-related costs annually.
• Those extra graduates would earn $52 million more each year.

Return on Investment
Education pays. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that people with higher levels of education are less likely to be unemployed and generally make higher salaries than their less-educated peers. How much higher? Turns out the difference between graduating high school and dropping out is about $182 per week. Here's what the nationwide data from 2010 show:

Education level Median weekly earnings Unemployment rate Less than a high school diploma
High school diploma
Some college
Associate degree
Bachelor's degree
Master's degree
Professional degree
Doctoral degree
Average for all education levels
14.9 percent
10.3 percent
9.2 percent
7.0 percent
5.4 percent
4.0 percent
2.4 percent
1.9 percent
8.2 percent

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

2012 Bills to Watch
Here are some of the major education bills state legislators are considering this year.

Charter schools
Mississippi law allows public schools that fail for three years in a row to become charter schools, but only if parents petition for a charter. Sen. Michael Watson of Pascagoula, along with nine other Republican senators, has proposed Senate Bill 2242 to make it easier to start charter schools in the state.

The bill provides for converting existing public schools to charter schools, similar to earlier legislation, but gets rid of the three-year requirement. Instead, any school may apply for a charter, but preference may be given to schools rated as under academic watch or lower at the time of application, or those in districts with low ratings.

Students at the school would automatically be enrolled at the charter school, but the next year, if more eligible students apply than the school has spaces available, it would use a lottery to fill spaces. Siblings of students in the charter school would automatically be enrolled if they apply.

If the law passes, charter schools would be exempt from all the rules and policies of the state Board of Education, local school boards and state law, except for laws prohibiting intimidation intended to keep a student from attending school, requirements about violence on school property, Department of Health regulations and federal No Child Left Behind rules.

The bill would also allow outside entities to start charter schools that are not converted from existing public schools, called open-enrollment charter schools, and sets most of the same restrictions on them as with converted charter schools.

The bill does give preference to applicants that have run successful charter schools in another state if the school is to be located in high-poverty areas with a high percentage of students reading below grade level.

Conversion charter schools would receive the same funding as other public schools in the district, while open-enrollment charter schools would receive the same per-pupil funding, based on student attendance, but only half the money from school district ad valorem taxes.

Watson has also introduced another bill, Senate Bill 2294, to authorize "virtual charter schools," among other things. Under the bill, students would be taught partially in the classroom and partially via computers.

Early Childhood Education
On the pre-kindergarten front, Senate Bill 2061 would fund a grant program for existing early childhood education programs. Licensed pre-K programs, including Head Start, public-school programs and private programs, could apply for funds for things like hiring additional teachers, purchasing new equipment and evaluating programs.

Senate Bill 2115 targets the Delta by seeking to establish a pilot program for mandatory pre-kindergarten classes in under-performing school districts in the region. If the bill passes, school districts in the 18 Delta counties that are rated low-performing or worse for two consecutive years will be required to implement state-funded, full-day pre-K programs.

Another bill seeks to implement public early childhood education programs statewide on a phased-in basis, beginning with underperforming school districts. Senate Bill 2185 would have the state Department of Education begin implementing voluntary pre-kindergarten programs in the 2012-2013 school year.

Superintendents and School Boards
Several legislators want to switch all districts to appointed, rather than elected superintendents. Most districts already have appointed superintendents, but for several years the Department of Education has asked the Legislature to require all superintendents to be appointed.

The rationale for such a move is that elected superintendents might have the charisma to get votes without the educational and administrative know-how to run schools.

Senate Bills 2190 and 2313 would both require all school districts to have appointed superintendents, while House Bill 43 would require appointed superintendents and elected school boards.

House Bill 34, sponsored by Rep. Bill Denny, a Republican from Jackson, would reorganize all the school districts in the state into 82 countywide school districts.

Senate Bill 2330, which passed the Senate last week, would only merge the three school districts in Sunflower County.

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