EDITORIAL: Sustained challenges

Dr. Phil Pepper’s extraordinarily cautious outlook about economic recovery in Mississippi, published in the Sunday Journal, reinforces unambiguously the importance of maintaining every educational attainment initiative in progress at the state, regional and district levels.
Pepper, the chief state economist, said in the 3Q’s interview conducted by Business Editor Dennis Seid that Mississippi’s rebound “will be painfully slow … (We) won’t see the amount of growth in Mississippi that we saw from 2003 to 2007. There are fewer jobs and less money to spend now.”
While that may be generally obvious, his more expansive view raises red flags in Northeast Mississippi.
“It’s … the rural areas with less education that are falling farther behind,” Pepper said.
Pepper’s view sums up our region’s situation. Our average educational attainment level, despite intense recent efforts to gain ground, is lower than the statewide average.
A significant portion of the region’s manufacturing base, centering in the upholstered furniture sector, is challenged. Its job losses and offshore jobs movement have been dramatic, despite the resilience of some high-profile firms.
Pepper’s citation of 2007 as the final year in a growth cycle includes the announcement that Toyota would build a 2,000-employee assembly plant at Blue Springs, bringing additional thousands of jobs in supplier industries and spin-offs. The recession that started in December 2007 cut the legs from underneath production projections, as the national and global auto markets reeled from declining sales.
The Blue Springs plant building is virtually complete, but production is among those factors waiting on general economic improvement and a rise in demand for new cars and trucks.
The Toyota announcement, however, paralleled renewed regional commitment to education upgrades, including higher attainment for the work force as well as current students in public schools. Efforts have been led by the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, a private-sector agency driven by civic leadership.
The commission’s research confirmed a complex mix of liabilities compounding problems of educational attainment: poverty, race, and lack of community commitment among them.
A report released this week highlights the issue of lower graduation rates nationwide for black male students compared to white peers. Mississippi isn’t dead last, but the gap between black male graduates and whites is 49 percent to 61 percent, problematically low in both categories.
That statistic underscores the basic problem: Dropouts siphon off too many students, all with unfulfilled potential for success.
Thursday’s annual free, public meeting of the commission (8:30 a.m. registration, 9:30 start, BancorpSouth Conference Center) continues important discussions of dropouts and related topics.


NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio