No Miracle Cure | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

No Miracle Cure

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Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, says businesses need an educated work force. His organization helped write the Blueprint Mississippi 2011 report by gathering input from business and community leaders around the state.

Blake Wilson only planned to stay in Mississippi a couple of years. A Delaware native, he has lived in five states, three of them since he has been married.

"Frankly, we like Mississippi best," he said. "I wouldn't have thought that when I moved here. ... But I hope to retire here. That's the best testimony I can give."

Wilson spoke to the Jackson Free Press a few days after Gov. Phil Bryant's State of the State speech and shortly after the Legislature's education committees met for a hearing on charter schools. As president of the Mississippi Economic Council, he's spent quite a bit of time lately talking about the Blueprint Mississippi 2011 report, a collaboration between universities, business and community leaders, and experts in various fields who studied Mississippi's economy compared to the so-called "Blueprint States" with comparable economies.

"We had literally thousands of pages of research that we pulled from to create that document," he said.

The resulting 140-plus-page report is a wealth of information on the state's economic outlook, with recommendations on everything from growth in the health care sector to racial reconciliation to charter schools. Ahead of the report's release last month, Wilson and others at MEC took some initial recommendations from Blueprint on the road to business leaders and communities around the state, to ask where Mississippi should focus its efforts.

The resounding answer? Education.

I saw in the Blueprint report that people had listed education as their top priority.
Education is number one, which didn't surprise me. I mean, I've been here 14 years, and it consistently comes up very high. It's a funny thing—it's one of those issues that business and community leaders all agree are very, very important, and they have different ideas on how you get to solving the problem. ...

My leadership are primarily corporate CEOs, some of whom have served on school boards over their careers, and some who have employees who serve on school boards, and we really wrestle with that issue (of charter schools). You'd think the business community would say: "Oh yeah, choice! We all want free enterprise; choice everywhere!"

Well, the problem is that the business of education is not a business, so you can't run it like a business. ... You can't say, well, we're just going to have the bright kids in our school, or we're just going to have the kids who like engineering, or we're just going to have the kids who like music, or we're just going to have the kids who are kind of nonperforming, we're going to take care of them. That's what some people think we ought to do—we ought to have all these choices. Well, how do you afford to do that in a state that right now is talking about consolidation of schools?

I live in Rankin. My kids have graduated now, but they went to Northwest Rankin. Would they have had four schools? How would we have funded four different schools for them to choose from? How do you do that? You can't. Charter schools need to be employed with the precision of a surgeon—to carve out nonperformance, to be used in an area where, OK, we've tried everything with this school, and we can't seem to get it working.

Charters are the course of last resort. Put a charter there, but have it for all students—don't set it up where you're having a competition within the school district. Have it for all kids, and use a different approach for managing that problem—carve out that cancer of nonperformance. ... We support charter schools, but only used very narrowly.

Do you think there's anything in particular, education-wise, that business and community leaders want to see the state invest in?
Work-force training is very important to everybody, and I don't mean learning how to weld or learning how to join. Irwin Edenzon who is the (president) of Ingalls Shipbuilding, which is the largest manufacturing employer in the state. He came and went to three of our road-show meetings on Blueprint, and he stood up and said: "Look, I can teach somebody how to weld, I can teach them how to join, I can teach them how to be an electrician. I cannot teach them how to read and write." That's why having a kid learn to read by the time they're in the fourth grade is critical, because if we miss that, we've missed the shot. And I hear that from so many business people.

... We've got to make sure these kids graduate from high school, and when they graduate from high school that they've learned to read, do math, communicate with each other and have the ethic of showing up for work.

... That's really what business is looking for most out of our K-12 public school system. They're really not looking for training kids to be welders, but to get them focused, that they're either going to get ready for work or they're going to get ready to go to an advanced education, either community college or a four-year (degree).

We'd like to see more effort put into making kids aware of their career options. We have, for good reason, focused so much attention in America on a four-year college degree, that we've kind of de-emphasized that a four-year college degree isn't for everybody. There are a lot of kids that are destined to be a tradesperson, and are going to make great money. A welder, on the job today, is making $65,000 to $70,000 a year—not bad money. My liberal arts-graduate daughter, who works at a local ad agency I'm sure would enjoy making that kind of money.

... We do believe that almost everything today is requiring some additional education. In other words, a high school degree is usually not enough. You've got to get on and get some additional skills training—and maybe they're going through a certification program, not necessarily getting a two-year degree or a four-year degree—but you've got to gain more background experience.

How do you think the state will have to help with that?
They've been doing it. Public policy's a funny thing. Every politician wants things to happen in four-year increments because they've got to get elected. Rarely on an issue like this can you turn something in four years. It's a long, slow commitment.

... (For example), we have one of the toughest, most effective accountability systems, and it took years for us to get that in place. And now it's going to take us years to see the results of it, because for the first time now we can get rid of principals who are nonperforming—they get turned out of their job, as well as superintendents. It didn't used to be that way. Exceptional leadership, exceptional teaching is what makes a difference in a school.

... I think we're moving in the right direction; it's just not going to be rapid, there are no silver bullets. Charter schools, like everything else, is another tool we can use, but there's no miracle cure. This is not something being sold on late-night TV as the miracle cure; it will not work. You've got to look at it long-term.

I've heard some people argue that the ultimate goal of charter schools is to develop techniques that can be applied more broadly.
A charter school is really a school within itself. What happens is it's really taken out of the system. It's still under the public school accreditation requirements—in other words, you still have to meet all of the performance requirements; you can't just come up with your own curriculum and say, I think we'll teach whatever we feel like today, you have to follow that—but the administrative aspects, the selection of teachers, all of that is pulled out of the statewide system, and it's almost its own entity.

The idea of that is you bring the parents in, you have the students who are very focused, you have a very focused faculty, and there are great examples where it works. There are also many examples where it doesn't. There's a Stanford University study, ... which shows mixed results, and what does it get back to? It gets back to exceptional teaching and exceptional leadership—those are the two main ingredients in any successful schools.

Some charter schools have had start-up money to help them. Do you see the business community in Mississippi doing something similar?
That's one of the challenges. Yeah, in Madison or Rankin County, it would be easy, but you don't need the charter school there; you've got high-performing schools. But you get out into some of these rural counties, and there is no business community. There's no tax base. That's why the schools are underfunded.

That's what the whole purpose of having the Mississippi Adequate Education Program is. ... 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. 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. So, the Adequate Education Program levels that funding out, and says we are going to have at least a level of funding for all schools in Mississippi. That's why the Adequate Education Program is so important. It creates predictability and stability for funding public schools.

Do you think there's any chance of getting MAEP funded this year or close to funded?
The governor in his (State of the State) speech said level funding; I think that's probably realistic. We don't have any problem with the fact that everything had to go down when the recession hit; you cannot fund everything at the same levels. We just want it to stay in the same relation to how everything else has been cut. ... The thing is, we have to make that the first priority when the economy comes back.

Legacy Comments

Blake Wilson hits the nail squarely on the head with the issue plaguing education in MS, concentrated poverty in the rural (and urban) districts. Simply put, the resources (human, fiscal, industrial, and structural) that are necessary to support public schooling in the 21st century are simply absent in these communities. The tax base just isn’t there, the educational level of the citizens isn’t there, and the businesses and educational amenities (museums, apprenticeship opportunities, community based activities, etc.) just aren’t in these communities. Now, the next question is why aren’t they there? Bob Moses saw this coming in the 1960’s. He coined the phrase “share-cropper education” to describe the types of educational experiences he saw the children receiving in the delta. Simply put, the lack of human and economic resources in these communities is no happenstance of chance. The Black citizens in these communities were purposefully denied educational, political and economic development opportunities for generations in order to maintain a share-cropper class of low skilled (and therefore low waged) workers to tend to the plantations that their ancestors left behind years before. After forced integration of the schools hit in 1970, the white citizens in these communities either left or enrolled their children in (sub-par) private segregation academies (that still stand today). What those white citizens left behind were schools systems (already too divided so as to maintain segregation) that were doomed to fail. As white citizens created and retreated to suburbs (think about Brandon in Rankin County, Madison in Madison County, and Oak Grove in Lamar County, etc.) the tax base in the communities left behind dwindled. So, what we see in areas like Sunflower County, Carroll County, and Hazlehurst are the proverbial “Chickens coming home to roost” of segregation and Jim Crow. Where I depart from Blake is the notion that MAEP is “adequate” enough to address this issue. The destruction of these communities necessitates educational interventions that rival what is taking place in the Harlem Children Zone in New York. The only thing that saves these districts is the Federal Title I dollars. What we need is extensive intervention at the state level for these communities and a reparations mindset when we come to the table to devise solutions. Equity support and intervention can no longer be seen in reference to how much we support suburban districts; it’s just more expensive to educate poor kids. The support must be targeted and intentional to make up for the generations of discrimination and deprivation that is the basis of the social and racial inequalities that we see. The education system has to make up for the resources that poor students do not have in the home due to poverty. Then, true racial reconciliation can begin.

Renaldo Bryant2012-02-16T16:31:30-06:00

Renaldo- You stated that private academies are sub par to public schools and I have seen Donna state that too. I am just wondering what ya'll are basing that on? Do you have graduation rates,college acceptance records,ACT scores,Scholarship giving, etc data for private schools that you are basing this on or just your opinions? I'm from the Delta, went to private school for 12yrs, have family that are administrators now in the public schools systems and also have taught at private schools in the past, and from my experience and their opinions from experience with both systems,the privates schools are superior to any public school in the Delta.

BubbaT2012-02-16T19:36:37-06:00

Bubba, not every private academy is worse than every public school. Don't mischaracterize me. But the truth is that many private academies (especially those set up as segregation academies) have huge holes in what they teach. Graduates from many of those academies complain about it constantly. Obviously, graduation rates aren't going to reflect that because those schools aren't subject to "No Child Left Behind" testing and the same standards. So it's hard to compare apples to oranges (by design). That doesn't mean smart kids don't come out of seg academies, and I meet many who are hungry to fill in the holes in their knowledge and education, just as I meet kids from public schools who are the same way. And with due respect, after seeing most of your posts here over the years, and the level of binary (and defensive) thinking imbedded in them, I suspect you could have benefitted from from rigorous teaching/questioning in your 12 years at that academy. In public schools today, teachers are forced to teach to the test. In many private schools, teachers are forced to teach to the ideology. I've talked to many of those teachers as well who are frustrated because of the strictures put on them, but who can't talk openly from fear of losing their jobs. Then there's the age-old problem that kids who only go to schools with kids who look like them, or have similar backgrounds (whether public or private school), are not learning to function and think well in such a multicultural country with a full grounding in history and knowledge of why things are the way they are. They don't know basic civics and American principles—like understanding that the establishment clause of the First Amendment brilliantly protects the freedom of religion that makes our country so great. Or they aren't taught the basic principle that "free speech" is about protecting citizens from government censorship--and doesn't mean that you can lie about anyone anytime you feel like it. They don't learn why racial divides exist, and are even taught that the Civil War wasn't about slavery (a big one in seg academies; my guess is they never hand out the Articles of Secession of Mississippi and the other southern states to the kids). They, too often, just aren't taught the things that make their parents and the people who set up their seg academies uncomfortable. In fact, they are often taught the opposite. Kids who don't go to school in diverse environments learn to distrust the "other," and then they make decisions as adults based on that, and it's huge reason that we are so binary and divided as a country.

DonnaLadd2012-02-17T09:24:45-06:00

And I'll say this, too, Bubba: A huge difference between you and me (the public-school girl) is that I knew when I came out of Neshoba Central and later Mississippi State and even later Columbia that my education wasn't complete. Good teachers (starting at Neshoba Central) had taught me to question and to constantly seek out new information. I learned to distrust any political party, and I learn to look for primary sources of media, not just rely on one biased source or media outlet or another. I try to constantly question my assumptions and those of the folks who work for me. That doesn't mean that I believe that Barack Obama and Herman Cain (or Newt or Rick) are both "equally" bad; it means that I think and compare and research and then can make my own decisions without a party or an anonymous blogger or a TV personality paid to be mean telling me what I'm supposed to think. I can also believe that a governor shouldn't pardon vicious killers, and that they should serve their full time, and believe that the death penalty is a flawed institution that discriminates *both* against the poor of all races and against people of color. (Note there are two examples of binary rejection in that statement.) I can believe that zero-tolerance policies are bad for all kids, and worse for kids of color, based on real research. (It's not either or.) I can criticize Republicans without being a Democrat. I can also like the president, and prefer him over alternatives, without supporting everything Dems do. I can think for myself. I can see that the Confederate battle flag is divisive and hurtful to a large number of our citizens and should not be embraced by our state government, even as I say that dude down on Highway 49 has the right to hang a huge one in his yard even as it turns my stomach. I can despise everything that the Klan stands for and still believe in their right to march in Skokie, Ill., or Jackson, Miss. (and our right to turn out and shout their asses down.) I can appreciate and enjoy much hip-hop music while challenging violent and misogynistic lyrics. I can also see that hip-hop isn't the only music that can lead by poor example in those ways. I could go on, but this is what I mean by learning to think.

DonnaLadd2012-02-17T09:36:06-06:00

Wow, Donna has really proven my point, Bubba. The binary thinking aspect of segregated learning is too often overlooked and is a sad and destructive consequence for Mississippi. Many people think that it is the goal of “Good Christian learnin’” to not learn differing viewpoints and worldviews. Learning how to appreciate diversity would taint their faith in God (I have actually sat in a Sunday school class where a man actually said that). But to speak to how do I know that segregation academies are sub-par, I must say that, just as Donna has noted, much of my assessment is anecdotal, and that is by design. I have talked to former seg. academy parents and students, and administrators in public school who occasionally have to process students from seg. academies into the public schools and they note much of what Donna notes about gaps in their curricula. These seg. academies do not publish vital stats about student achievement and success. This gives them a competitive advantage in these communities. Also, it plays on the fears, ignorance, and prejudices of people in the communities when they can remain silent on their curricula and standards. If nothing else, all they have to do is be there as a “grass is greener” alternative and parents are interested. As a note about the binary thinking that is spawned from such a educational structure and reinforced by the settled nature of dogmatic thinking around the state, I think Mississippi is severely crippled by this. Just as the debate about charter schools and immigration is heating up at the state capital, so much of it is being informed by binary thinking. Just this morning on the radio, I heard someone try to compare demanding "potential" illegal immigrants to produce documenation on the spot is akin to demanding proof of residence from parents when enrolling their children in school. The absurdity of it all is that the host never even considered who be targeted as "potentially illegal" and , more importantly, who wouldn't be targeted. Being white presents itself with the privilege of not being effected by racist laws like this, and since they are not sensitive to the perspective of minorities who would be targeted, they simply ignore or dismiss that fatal flaw in this legislation. Binary thinking narrows the possibilities for solutions when people automatically ignore certain concepts and perspectives. It is just so amazingly ironic that in the state with the highest poverty and minority population rate in the country that much of the political and economic leadership see the issues of racism and poverty in such binary terms. Poor and minority people are so misunderstood precisely because the state leadership rarely had to deal with them on a regular basis growing up, whether it was educationally in schools or socially through churches and other networks, much of the leadership in MS was reared in segregated spaces, away from the diversity that would help to inform their world views and perspectives. So, I guess Bubba, I would also count the seg. academies as sub-par due to the very nature of them being segregated. Segregated education, in this sense, limits thinking and stokes the seeds of indifference and intolerance, which are destructive to our state.

Renaldo Bryant2012-02-17T10:34:18-06:00

Also Bubba, After all of the other facts about the history and current policies that characterize education in MS that I presented, you only note a small parenthetical statement about the quality of seg. academies? Another prime example of the narrow thinking that they encourage.

Renaldo Bryant2012-02-17T11:53:35-06:00

Rockin' post, Renaldo. And this was just amazing, especially the bolded part. I could not have said it better. So, I guess Bubba, I would also count the seg. academies as sub-par due to the very nature of them being segregated. Segregated education, in this sense, limits thinking and stokes the seeds of indifference and intolerance, which are destructive to our state. I was just now talking about this same thing for an interview for a documentary, and I wish I had seen your statement first. I would have quoted you!

DonnaLadd2012-02-17T12:59:49-06:00

Renaldo- The sub par statement was the only thing I questioned, the rest your post is pretty much factual and I saw no need question it or discuss it. :)

BubbaT2012-02-17T13:41:48-06:00

Donna- The difference between us is a lot smaller than you realize. :) I'll try to reply to your post in more this weekend real busy right now.

BubbaT2012-02-17T13:51:33-06:00

Thanks Donna, Interestingly enough, I went to what some may call a “segregated” college (Morehouse College, in Atlanta, GA). It is a “Historically Black” and all male school that I would encourage any young black man to attend. I do believe that, though in the instance of seg. academies, the educational experience is indeed limiting and does ingrain indifference and intolerance, I would argue that in the sense of Morehouse, Spellman, and all HBCU’s, there is a different dynamic. In the case for HBCU’s, the students that attend are students who are traditionally minorities having to find their way in a white supremacist society. There are issues of identity, critical thinking, academic preparation, community advocacy, and self confidence that must be nurtured to produce well adjusted minority citizens prepared to dismantle white supremacy in their communities. So, I think there is a need, for a time, for many minority students to have that space where the issues of racism and identity need to be addressed in an environment where their racial identity can be affirmed, to amend any internalized self-hate born in the dominant culture. If that space has to be a “segregated” or homogenous space racially, it should be respected. I think in the case of seg. academies, the very fact that they excluded black students, reinforces the status quo of white supremacy, rather than preparing students to dismantle it. So, when I speak of segregation in that sense, I speak of the power relationships as much as the homogenous nature of physical separation by race. Keep in mind as well, not 1 HBCU has ever denied entry to a student because of race, can we say the same for seg. academies? I say all that to say that the argument about the ill effects of a so called “segregated education” doesn’t necessarily cut both ways. As with many other aspects of racism, there are complexities that must be understood by all peopel of good will in order to fully engage in the work of dismantling white supremacy.

Renaldo Bryant2012-02-17T14:39:40-06:00

Donna, I love you so much! Honestly I know I say it all the time but you and the JFP taught me so much about life. Miss y'all and Jackson!

Tiffany Todd2012-02-18T14:34:39-06:00

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