By Sid Salter/Syndicated columnist
The Picayune Item
STARKVILLE, Miss. —
Pacing back and forth as he talked in front of the state’s most influential business group with his ever-present Western boots polished to a blinding shine, Gov. Phil Bryant appeared well at ease in his role as salesman-in-chief for his “Education Works” agenda as the 2013 legislative session .
Bryant used his time addressing the Mississippi Economic Council’s “Capital Day” event to urge the state’s business community to embrace his $26 million education plan — one that relies on some substantive basic reforms that have eluded the state for years but that seem — in most cases - infinitely doable from a political standpoint.
As an organization that has a half-century track record of both talking the talk and walking the walk in supporting public education in Mississippi, MEC was the perfect forum for Bryant to make his pitch. The MEC has honored the state’s best and brightest high school scholars with STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Recognition) student status for the last 46 years.
Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum reiterated MEC’s status as a business group that values education when he unveiled a new MSU scholarship program that will offer MEC’s STAR students $6,000 in additional scholarships. In doing so, MSU becomes the first Mississippi university to make that investment as an effort to keep the state’s best students in Mississippi to pursue their educations.
Bryant told the MEC crowd that he struggled as a child with reading before a teacher recognized that he was struggling in fact with dyslexia.
“I just thought I was dumb,” Bryant said. “The teacher knew better and told me so.” Bryant went on to tell the familiar story of his diesel mechanic father’s support of his family and the dignity of jobs produced from vocation, technical and workforce training.
But Bryant’s “Education Works” program focus is what he called the “literacy crisis” and the consequences of the continuation of Mississippi’s long history of so-called “social promotion” — passing students to the next grade when they are not academically prepared to do work on that new grade level.
Bryant said: “Data show that 46 percent of third-graders and 78 percent of fourth-graders in Mississippi are not proficient in reading. The problem only gets worse as students pass to the next grade, and by eighth grade, a student who couldn’t read proficiently in third grade is four times more likely to drop out of school than his peers.”
The “Education Works” agenda has other main points: Raising standards for teacher and a teacher merit pay pilot program; continuing early childhood education efforts; increasing school choice through charter school legislation and open enrollment ; and a program that would provide $10 million in tax credits to individuals or businesses who donate funds for students in low-performing school districts to attend private schools.
With Republicans in charge in both houses of the Legislature, much of Bryant’s plan should win legislative support. But there are policy disagreements over charter schools among GOP colleagues — and the open enrollment proposals are certain to generate criticism in some circles.
The MEC crowd by and large liked what they heard from Bryant as he made his pitch. One line in particular that drew applause was this one: “We have 152 walls that we build around these school districts, and we won’t let students in or out. I want to change that.”
(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org)