OPINION: Business leaders understanding value of education

Many things in Mississippi have changed – some dramatically – over the last three decades, but none so much as the value attached to education by business and political leaders.
The Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s leading business organization, recently completed its fall “Transformation Tour” in a dozen cities around the state, including Tupelo. Just over 1,000 of the business and community leaders in attendance at those gatherings took a written survey that, among other questions, asked what respondents considered “the single most important issue in putting Mississippi in the position of greatest opportunity.”
Fifty percent said education, more than twice as high as the next choice – workforce training – at 22 percent. And those two are really cut from the same cloth.
Four additional categories listed – targeted recruitment (13 percent), economic incentives (9 percent), transportation (2 percent) and health care (1 percent) were all well down the list, though it would be hard to discount the importance of any of them.
The point is that the recognition of the importance of education to business success and prosperity in Mississippi is well-established and enduring. Politicians, too, now pay at least rhetorical allegiance to this notion, even if they don’t always follow through.
This state historically neglected public education, or at least considered it unimportant. The early 20th century Gov. James K. Vardaman opined that too much education “just ruins a good field hand.”
From the 1950s through the early 1970s, the main emphasis on public schools in Mississippi was keeping them racially segregated. Even the Minimum Foundation Program, which was passed in the early ‘50s to provide basic levels of financial support for schools, was in part an attempt to improve the condition of black schools in order to forestall forced integration.
When the fight to maintain segregation failed, white-only private schools popped up in many areas of the state and political support for public schools – never that strong – faltered even more.
Then came William Winter, elected governor in 1979. Education had been at the center of his public life to that point, and he knew Mississippi would never get where it needed to be if it didn’t dramatically improve its public schools. The case for better education – for improving the lot of all of Mississippi’s children – could be made on the simple basis that it was the right thing to do, morally and ethically. But Winter understood that there needed to be a broader connection to get the business community fully behind school reform, and he built his argument around education’s direct connection to jobs, economic development and workforce issues.
It worked. Twenty-seven years ago today, the Mississippi Legislature – called into special session by Winter – enacted what to that point was the most comprehensive education reform legislation in the country and raised taxes to pay for it. The beginnings of most everything that has happened since in Mississippi’s slow march toward educational improvement – including more rigorous accountability standards in effect this year – came out of the Education Reform Act of 1982. The support of Mississippi’s business leadership was a key to its passage, deemed by many the “Christmas miracle.”
Since then, the connection between public education and economic development has been a given in Mississippi, and in recent years the role of the community colleges and universities in that linkage has become increasingly obvious as well.
It should surprise no one that of all the MEC gatherings around Mississippi, education scored highest – 58 percent – at the Tupelo event. This region’s business and community leaders have as clear and focused an understanding of the centrality of education to economic prosperity as anywhere in the state.
Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. There’s still much work to be done in convincing the broader population not only of the importance of education in the abstract, but to the life opportunities of each individual as well. The need for more rigor and tougher standards while simultaneously keeping people from quitting school has never been more urgent.
But at least the business community gets it, and that’s a big part of the battle. We’ve come a long way from the days when many considered educational opportunity for everyone a dangerous threat to the status quo.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal