EDITORIAL: Life in the region

The annual summaries of priorities and work within the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi presented at last week’s annual meeting weren’t all rosy reports, one of the commission’s strengths in dealing with challenges and opportunities.
In fact, some of the issues that came to light when the commission started examining or region 14 years ago remain gritty problems, but they’re seen more clearly and more honestly because up-to-date facts dispel illusions – and tend to move people to action.
CREATE Foundation Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield’s annual program summary, and the presentation of state universities’ senior economist Darrin Webb, focused more clearly than ever on the huge gap created in personal prosperity and in state achievement by lack of educational attainment.
Thursday’s theme was education from start to finish – from early childhood development to post-graduate studies – and how each level of achievement or lack of it affects our state and collectively all three million of us.
Because too many Northeast Mississippians are woefully undereducated we lag in personal income behind the state average and even more significantly behind the nation:
– $40,166 per capita nationwide;
– $27,833 per capita in Northeast Mississippi.
Our region’s gains in income since 2000 have exceeded the nation – 39.9 percent to 34.6 percent – but we were further behind and dead last to begin. We didn’t do as well as the state, which gained 44.6 percent, to $30,383.
Webb said the best measures show that 53 percent of the gap between Mississippi per capita and national per capita is a direct result of under-education.
Our problem is not an incurable disease; it is a mostly self-inflicted condition whose remedy is more, better and appropriate education – knowledge.
Webb’s crunched numbers also show a long, slow climb back to reclaim manufacturing employment figures in the region before the two recessions of the 21st century, based on current projections.
Webb also cited one of the most painful facts of the day: 41 percent of working age people in Northeast Mississippi don’t have a high school diploma.
Given that, it is not surprising that the Southern Education Foundation’s studies show that 32.2 percent of Mississippi’s adult high school dropouts live in poverty and 15.7 percent of dropouts were unemployed in December 2009. The unemployment rate for Mississippians with a college degree was 4.6 percent.
A major part of the remedy, as nearly all experts and informed laypersons understand, is instigation of an early childhood education (pre-school) program that gives Mississippi children the earliest, best start in brain nurture – the essential first step in preventing dropouts and poverty later on.
Our state is like a lonely island surrounded by states, including all our bordering states, whose early childhood programs are among the nation’s best. They haven’t operated for a full student generation, but all the evidence points toward major gains for them and nothing but the status quo for Mississippi if we don’t join the movement.
The North Carolina pre-K method, Abcedarian, finds that those students are less likely to repeat grades, losing both time and prestige among age peers, and those who stay the course are three times more likely to go on to a four-year college.
Mississippi doesn’t lack understanding of the issue among its leadership. The Barksdale Reading Initiative, headquartered in Oxford, and Mississippi State University’s premier early childhood education center, rank among the best analytical assets anywhere.
What we have not done is make the commitment – as financially challenging as that is – to assure an effective statewide early childhood/pre-k program.
Every year’s delay places another class of students at highest risk.

NEMS Daily Journal

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