HED:Education tops priorities of state business leaders
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Education is the top issue facing the state, business leaders said in a poll conducted by the Mississippi Economic Council.
According to the scientific poll conducted earlier this month of 351 business leaders, 46 percent rated education as the issue most “impacting” the state, with 16 percent rating jobs and the economy as the most important.
No other issue was deemed nearly as important by the poll participants. Roads and taxes were each deemed most important by 5 percent of the respondents.
“The No. 1 issue loud and clear was education, education, education,” Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, said during a Wednesday news conference at the state Capitol.
But when the business leaders were asked to list the issue most impacting the state’s business environment, the economy and jobs virtually tied with education.
Lack of resources
Wilson went on to add that lack of resources was listed as the most important issue facing the state’s public schools.
“But when business leaders were asked whether more dollars should be spent on education or whether existing resources should be reallocated, the numbers were pretty much split,” Wilson said.
He added, “I have traveled around the state and haven’t heard any business leader opposed to a pay raise for teachers.”
Wilson said many business leaders would like to see some accountability measures tied to the pay raise.
Although public education was listed as an important issue, it did not receive overall favorable results. About 65 percent gave high performance ratings to the state’s four-year and two-year colleges. But only 30 percent gave the same high ratings to the kindergarten through 12th grade schools.
Still, Don Kilgore of Philadelphia, incoming MEC chairman, said the poll results indicate the Mississippi Economic Council’s priority is still education. He pointed out that MEC has a long history of supporting public education.
The Mississippi Economic Council, which bills itself as the state’s chamber of commerce, is a private group, consisting mainly of business people interested in improving the state’s economic opportunities.
For the poll, Wilson said 351 retailers, manufacturers and service providers were interviewed. Some were MEC members and some were not. The poll, conducted in December and January, has a 4 percent margin of error.
Billed as providing the “economic state of the state,” Wilson said with the poll “businesses have made their voices heard from city halls to the state Capitol.”
According to the poll results, 75 percent of the respondents said the state’s economic health is average or better. Of that 75 percent, 8 percent said the economic health is excellent and 30 percent said it is above average.
A major problem facing business leaders, according to the poll, is a lack of qualified employees. Wilson said the Legislature could address that issue by combining all of the state’s work force training programs into the two-year community college system.
He said that would make it easier for employers to assess the work force programs since the two-year colleges are in the communities. And he said the state’s 15 community colleges already have proved they can offer effective work force training programs.
The poll revealed different regional concerns. For instance, the Coast and the DeSoto County areas are more concerned about transportation.
Northeast Mississippi business leaders are optimistic about agribusiness – primarily because of the timber industry – and are concerned about the lack of availability and cost of health insurance.
Delta area business leaders are more concerned about education and the economy and about the overall future of the state.