February 20, 2013 10:03:35 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Education and health care will be the driving forces behind economic development over the next few decades, Mississippi Economic Council officials told members of the Columbus Rotary Club Tuesday at Lion Hills Golf Club.
It is a message MEC is promoting throughout the state as part of its "Insight Tour," which will culminate March 1 in Hattiesburg.
The key to improving Mississippi's public school system lies in adequately funding and sustaining reforms until programs that seem optional eventually become the state standard, MEC President and CEO Blake Wilson said.
A survey of Rotarians indicated that the majority believe education is important to the region's economic success, but opinions of the local public school system run the gamut, with more than a third believing Columbus and Lowndes County schools are about the same as those in other districts and almost as many Rotarians saying they believe the public schools in the Golden Triangle are worse than those in other regions.
The four basic ingredients in successful primary and secondary education programs are exceptional leadership, quality teachers, demanding and involved parents and sustainable and predictable funding, Wilson said.
MEC will soon be promoting a new statewide educational progress initiative. Lasting change will not come quickly, but with incremental progress, it can be achieved, Wilson said, citing Mississippi's four-lane highway program which eventually met its goal of putting four-lanes within 30 miles or 30 minutes of every Mississippian.
Some of the legislative measures MEC is backing include appointed superintendents, performance-based compensation for teachers, charter schools and open enrollment, which would allow students at low-performing schools to transfer to other schools or districts.
MEC is also a major proponent of early childhood education, supporting increased funding for Mississippi Building Blocks, which works to implement or improve school-readiness programs at existing, licensed childcare centers.
The problem is not so much a lack of early childhood education programs -- 85 percent of the state's eligible children are enrolled in pre-kindergarten, with 27,000 enrolled in Head Start. But the quality is inconsistent, a problem Mississippi Building Blocks aims to address through classroom mentors, teacher training, parent education and rigorous standards.
MEC also supports "Excel by 5," a community-based program being piloted in 29 communities and focused on preparing every child by the age of 5 for educational success.
But legislators can't continue to say education is a priority while at the same time undercutting funding, Wilson said. It is impossible to lay out a plan without predictable, sustainable funding.
"How many times are we going to keep talking about it?" he said. "How many times are we going to keep trying to say, 'Well, if we just try this ...' We've got to do this. We have an obligation and a responsibility. I think we can do it in 10 years and so do some leaders that are already going on-board. In 10 years, we can make a generational change in Mississippi."
Health care will also be a major economic driver in the state's future, MEC officials believe, and their tour, funded by Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi, has made that message a priority.
Blueprint Mississippi, a one-year, $1.25 million research project comparing Mississippi to 11 other Southern states, has set forth eight goals: improving communication and coordination among public, private and nonprofit leaders, supporting the creative economy, cultivating diversity and racial reconciliation, strengthening and expanding the state's economy, increasing the educational attainment level, increasing availability of financial capital, promoting health care as an economic driver, developing infrastructure for a competitive economy and cultivating a more robust workforce.
MEC contends healthy workers are happy workers and happy workers enable the state to be more competitive. Improving residents' health results in less time away from work, lower health care costs and increased productivity, the study states.
But Mississippi struggles in the areas of wellness and preventative medicine, as well as jobs that provide health insurance and access to primary care in rural areas.
"Health care is the next big thing," Wilson said, adding that the Golden Triangle should take advantage of what he sees as "a real opportunity" to use its connection with Mississippi State University to grow medical research and innovation and potentially lure corresponding manufacturing operations.
The state's success will depend upon making legislators see the necessity of more resources and more effort, Wilson said, referencing aggressive economic development competition from Alabama and Louisiana.
"We've got to stand up and make this happen," he said. "If we don't do it, we're going to miss out. In a down economy, you want to be investing in economic development, you want to be investing in success, because you want to move yourself into the place of greatest opportunity where recovery begins. Here is our opportunity."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.