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Mississippi, nation face challenges

Improving primary education key to economic growth

A community can have the best industrial sites possible and great incentives to attract new industries. But without a good public school education added to the mix, economic developers are at a great disadvantage attracting new developments.

“Education is a major component of economic development,” said Steve Vassallo, the former president of Madison County Economic Development Authority who recently took a position as economic development consultant with Johnson & Associates. “You cannot get people to locate in your community unless they feel their children can advance through the public school system there.

“I don’t know of anything more important than education relating to economic development. It is at the top of the list. You can have the best looking industrial park in the world, and the cleanest cities, but if education is average or below average, you won’t attract the cream of the crop.”

Vassallo recalls several years ago working to recruit a Canadian client to a site in Kentucky. Things were going pretty well until the Canadian requested seeing the middle school where his daughter would be attending school. The school’s state of decay was evident without even entering the building.

“The client said, ‘If this is any indication of the emphasis you put on schools, I don’t think that this community would be a good match for me and my family’,” Vassallo said. “The importance of his family’s education was very key to where he would locate. He didn’t think we were progressive enough based on that alone.”

Vassallo said that even in areas like Madison County where there are excellent public schools, the fact that Mississippi ranks near the bottom on most education indicators projects an unfavorable image. Madison High School has one of the highest test score averages in the state. But economic developers in Madison County still have to fight the stigma attached to Mississippi having the lowest teacher pay in the nation and being on the bottom of other education indicators.

Vassallo advocates increasing teacher salaries in Mississippi to be competitive with other states in the region. He said it is particularly difficult to attract the best teachers in areas like math, science and foreign languages because those teachers are in great demand. When the teachers can go to other states and make considerably more money, it is a tough battle to keep them in Mississippi.

J. Britt Herrin, president of the Mississippi Economic Development Council and executive director of the Pike County Economic Development District, said companies are concerned about education not just because they need a trained workforce. A good education system is also important in order to attract key management people to the new development.

“From a company standpoint, most companies that are going to be coming in will be bringing in management, and they look at education as a primary reason management people will move there,” Herrin said. “That is just one aspect of it. The other aspect is that the whole school system, from kindergarten through college, is that company’s work force of the future. They want them well educated and prepared to work when they do get that degree.”

Herrin said the definition of how well prepared entry level workers must be is changing rapidly. In the past many workers didn’t even finish high school. Now almost every manufacturing job involves computers and quality controls that require good math skills.

“The bar just keeps getting raised, and it is a going to continue to go up,” Herrin said.

While agreeing that improving primary education is important, Herrin said he doesn’t believe Mississippi always deserves the bum rap it gets on education. The education indicators don’t take into account the differences between the cost of living in Mississippi and elsewhere. So while another state may be spending more per student, it also costs more to provide goods and services for the school system.

“We do need to try to improve,” Herrin said. “But the average for the state is certainly better than the perception.”

Herrin believes the challenges faced in Mississippi aren’t much different from those being seen in the rest of the country. He believes that the entire education system in the U.S. needs to be reinvented.

“Some of the things they did 20 to 30 years ago probably need to be brought back,” Herrin said. “For the economic development community, test scores are important for public relations. But the most important thing is if someone has a high school degree in Mississippi, it should mean something. They should have a certain amount of knowledge to be able to function in society. That isn’t always happening. Some industries complain that some people with a high school degree can barely read. That’s a problem in making our economy function.

“The primary thing is that we are not preparing people for the world. We are doing them a disservice. If it takes 16 years to get out of high school, keep them there until they are prepared for the real world. Few can go back and reacquire skills later in life. I think that is the critical part. I’d like to see test scores improved. But we need the quality of students who graduates to improve. We need to make sure that happens everywhere in the state.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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