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Early childhood education first step in economic development

What is the best way to ensure Mississippi has a workforce that can compete globally? Is there a certain way to turn Mississippi into an economic development hotspot? How about the most effective method of combating poverty?

“No matter what the question is, the answer is education,” said Mississippi Superintendent of Education Dr. Hank Bounds.

Variations on Bounds’ theme echoed throughout a ballroom in the Jackson Hilton October 6, when the Mississippi Economic Council’s (MEC) Marathon Tour made a stop to promote education as a way to beef up the state’ workforce training. One hundred and seventy-five business and community leaders were on hand.

The Marathon will reach 26 communities across Mississippi.

“It’s a great way to get to know our members,” said MEC president and CEO Blake Wilson.

“Everywhere we’ve been we’ve drawn huge crowds,” said Mississippi Power CEO Anthony Topazi, who is chair of the MEC for 2008-09. “It shows businesses are being connected.”

Early childhood education received the most attention. Funding for early childhood programs have been the centerpiece of Bounds’ Quality Education Act proposal that also seeks to redesign high school curriculums to better prepare students for the workforce and to recruit and retain quality teachers. Wilson said the MEC would be in favor of raising the state retirement cap for teachers from 25 years to 30 years. “A lot of our teachers are retiring when they’re in their prime,” he said.

“It’s going to take a consensus and it’s going to take a partnership,” Topazi said. “This can’t be done by one person or one business.”

The best way to ensure a neglected child does not become a future social or economic burden is to reach him early, Bounds said. Early intervention through education can accomplish that.

“States actually predict the number of prison beds they’re going to need on the number of third-graders who can’t read,” Bounds said, adding an illiterate third-grader has almost no chance of ever graduating high school. Figures from the Department of Education put the state’s dropout rate at 15.9%. Nearly 10,000 students quit school each year, with dropouts costing Mississippi $458 million annually. Approximately half that amount comes from Medicaid costs.

Bounds says one of his major goals is to cut the number of dropouts in half by 2013 with On the Bus, a dropout prevention campaign made possible by a $1.5-million grant from State Farm Insurance. The campaign has been raising awareness and offering preventative measure for the issue.

“Dropouts are the ultimate symptom,” he said. “There are a lot of diseases that lead to it. These are enormous hurdles to overcome.”

One way to overcome them is for students to undergo a rigorous load of course work in schools. The Mississippi Scholars Initiative, started in November 2003, is a program managed by the Public Education Forum of Mississippi, a subsidiary of the MEC that utilizes business leaders to motivate high school students to challenge themselves.

“The private sector can make a big difference with just a little bit of effort,” Wilson said.

“As business owners you can look at a student one of two ways; as a future employee or a future customer,” Bounds said.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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