Today’s Clarion-Ledger carries the distressing story that Mississippi’s jobless rate – an official 7.9% in June, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor - is the worst in the nation. The Magnolia State stands atop a “bad” list once again (sigh).
Asked to comment, Gov. Bryant explained that Mississippi’s economy is improving, just not as fast as the rest of the country (or as fast as he would like). Going to the cause of the state’s sluggish progress, the governor got it exactly right – education, or lack thereof, is the key factor hampering improvement. Mississippi suffers from too many dropouts and too much misdirected education. “We haven’t done as good a job as we should training workers for the future,” said Bryant.
While I prefer “education” over “training,” I think the governor is dead on in his assessment. Mississippi will forever bring up the national rear in employment – and likely every other indicator of well-being – until it does a significantly better job educating its citizens. Preparing workers of the future requires excellent education across the educational spectrum – pre-K – 12, community college, baccalaureate and graduate education included.
Lacking universal pre-K, Mississippi can’t at present even boast of a comprehensive system. Too many K-12 systems, further, are on life support (another news item informs that the state may soon take over malfunctioning Greenwood schools), and do a poor job preparing students for advanced education and training. Community colleges and four-year universities continue to struggle with declining state support and rising tuitions that price low-income students out of the educational market.
To get ahead, Mississippi will need to invest seriously in education – most notably in securing and retaining excellent faculty, and in maintaining state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and research. It’s not all about money per se; to be sure there are opportunities to streamline and to improve integration across the system spectrum. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think we can boost the employment prospects of most Mississippians without a major leap in the level of our financial commitment to education.