AP Interview: Bryant says education is top issue

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said education dominates his 2013 legislative agenda, from merit pay for teachers to charter schools that will receive public funding but be free of some state regulations.

“Ninety percent of our goal this session is to not only talk about education but get something transformational passed,” the Republican said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The three-month session begins at noon Jan. 8.

Bryant, who’s starting his second year as governor, proposes limited funding — $3 million in a $5.5 billion budget — to pay for early childhood education programs in parts of the state. He said Mississippi can’t afford a statewide pre-kindergarten program, but he wants to see stronger academic offerings for children in day care centers and Head Start programs.

“We just don’t need to set ‘em in front of a television and feed ‘em Froot Loops,” Bryant said. “We need to begin to teach them.”

He also proposes a broad-scale program of public school choice that would allow students in the lower-ranked schools — those graded D or F — to cross district lines to attend schools with better academic performance if space is available. Public funding would follow the student.

“We have 152 walls that we build around these school districts, and we won’t let students in or out,” Bryant said, speaking of school districts. “I call them Berlin Walls because they won’t let you out of there.”

The school choice program could face opposition from successful districts reluctant to change what they’re doing.

“If I have the money, I can go buy a house in a nice district, my children go to a nice school,” Bryant said. “So what we’re saying to a poor family is, ‘Your child is in that failing school district, they can’t get out and we’re never going to let you.'”

Here are other excerpts from the AP interview with the governor:

AP: You’re pushing for charter schools, but critics say the approach is too narrow. Some black lawmakers are skeptical about the motivation behind the push. How do you respond to the concerns?

Bryant: “As we were sitting in this office with Gov. Bush (former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida) and talking with members of the Black Caucus, and I had never realized that some members in the African-American community, members of the Legislature, had a constituency — which I’m very respectful of — that believes that somehow we’re trying to turn these into private schools, that somehow there’s this undercurrent of wanting to maybe put white students into public schools and sort of make them private schools. And I was so surprised by that. I had just never thought of that being an issue. Because every charter school I’ve ever been into is probably 99 percent African-American students. So, the idea that we’d somehow want to use this to make private schools using public dollars was just so foreign to me. … I think one of the issues that we have is they look at us as conservative Republicans as, maybe members that are resistant of charter schools, and they think, ‘Phil Bryant can’t really care about some African-American child’s education in inner-city Jackson or in the Delta, so there must be some alternative motive.’ And the fact is, we do care. We care because the economic workforce of the future can’t be sustained with half of our third-graders being unable to read at a third-grade level.”

AP: People also wonder: Who’s going to make money off charter schools?

Bryant: “If there is money to be made in charter schools, I haven’t figured out how that happens.”

AP: Talk about your third-grade reading initiative.

Bryant: “My idea is, let’s stop, let’s hold those third-graders that cannot read and not promote them to the fourth grade. But you’ve got to intervene. You’ve got to have dramatic, transformational intervention. We’ve asked for $15 million to bring in reading teachers to help work with those classes, those teachers, that perhaps are not using the most successful techniques.”

AP: Immigration enforcement was one of your top issues in 2012, but a bill died in the Senate. Will you renew your push in 2013?

Bryant: “We’re going to certainly work with the House leadership. … The people who come through the current system that are legal immigrants into America and into Mississippi, we welcome. That’s part of the American fabric. And we need to clearly understand that it is those that are crossing our borders illegally and violating our laws that we should have the authority, simply have the authority, to apprehend and determine their citizenship.”

AP: During a House committee hearing a few months ago, Hispanics said they were concerned that they or their loved ones could be stopped by officers simply because of the way they look, even if a law were to specify racial profiling wouldn’t be allowed. What do you think of those concerns?

Bryant: “I know it’s a red flag that some groups use, I think, to try to derail the lawful enforcement of the immigration laws. … A law enforcement officer makes the necessary arrest based on probable cause and facts. Because you’ve got to arrest that individual, you’ve got to handcuff them, you’ve got to take them to jail, you’ve got to book them in. Then you have to go to court and defend that arrest. And so the idea that a law enforcement officer would say, ‘I’m going to profile this individual and somehow have a trumped-up cause to arrest him because he’s Hispanic’ is just ridiculous. It is not going to happen. And I trust Mississippi law enforcement officers to make certain that doesn’t happen.”

AP: What kind of economic development proposals are on your 2013 agenda?

Bryant: “We are going to try to work carefully with the Legislature to fund MDA (the Mississippi Development Authority) at a level that is conservative but effective. … And we will involve the state auditor’s office at early stages when we begin to look for incentivizing bringing businesses into the state. That’s never been done before, but the state auditor and I have talked and we are anxious and certainly encouraged by his willingness to join us in more transparency.”

AP: Are you making proposals to shore up finances of the Public Employees Retirement System?

Bryant: “The PERS board believes that they can grow their investments by 8 percent. If they do that, then their actuary believes that certainly it will begin to grow the revenue to a level to sustain our projected retirees. Now, my concern is, if it doesn’t grow at 8 percent, if we don’t have those returns on investments, then what? Well, I tell you, the retirement will have to keep coming to the Legislature for more funding … which, again, reduces the revenue that we have to invest in education, public safety and other issues. What I’d like the board to do is to take, for example, a three-year period and to say at the end of this three-year period if your projections have not been met, if you haven’t grown by the 8 percent investment, make concrete recommendations of how the difference will be made. … I think we have a responsibility to deliver on our promises to retirees.”

AP: You’ve said repeatedly that you oppose expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. Do you still oppose it?

Bryant: “We’ll resist it. … We would simply have to raise taxes or make draconian cuts in state budgets.”

AP: You talk about wanting to expand the medical industry in Mississippi. People who support expanding Medicaid enrollment say the extra federal money could help drive the addition of more medical facilities and workers.

Bryant: “I think it’s a difference between looking at the world from a public view, a public political view, and a private-sector view. And the private-sector portion of me says to expand the health care industry as an economic driver that we need to bring in more doctors, more nurses, create more jobs. Now, creating those jobs through public dollars means that you’ve got to take money from someone else in Mississippi to provide those jobs. … It’s not as if doctors are going to move to Mississippi and we’re going to all the sudden have just more nurses that magically appear. … If tomorrow we began to expand Medicaid and in two years we added 300,000 Mississippians, all you’re going to do is reduce access to care for everyone. Because you’re basically going to have the same population of doctors and nurses.”