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.