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MARTY WISEMAN — Initiative 42: The siren in the night

MARTY WISEMAN

MARTY WISEMAN

Perhaps many of you have seen the new GE commercials that have been running quite frequently lately.  One of the more interesting, yet for Mississippi more sobering of these commercials, is the one where the “nerdy” son sits across from his parents to give them the good news that he has landed a manufacturing job with none other than the epitome of worldwide manufacturing giants – GE.  The proud father, clad in work jeans, steel toed boots and an open flannel shirt over a tee shirt triumphantly presents his son with his “grand pappy’s” big, well used sledge hammer.  Setting it with a thud in front of his newly hired manufacturing son, dad fights back tears as he presents him with this implement of heavy industrial labor saying, “Your grand pappy would want you to have this.”  When the son attempts to clarify for the father the nature of his new job by explaining that he would be “writing the computer code” that ran the machines, the fathers disappointment is palpable.  “You can’t even pick it up can you son?” retorted the father referring to the hammer.

What does that commercial have to do with the current state of human capital in Mississippi?  The reality is the hammers are idly rusting in the tool bends, the old rickety log trucks are parked never to run again, the saw mills and cotton gins are now run by computers and many of our highly trained engineers and scientists only show up in Mississippi for Christmas and the family reunion.

Because the debate over Initiative 42 has degenerated into a partisan argument over whether to tweak the roles of the three branches of government as they relate to a specific appropriation, the dire emergency facing public education in Mississippi and her local school districts has faded into the background.  Hence what is missing in this increasingly heated discussion is a sense of panic and a strong term like panic is certainly justified in light of the standing of Mississippi as determined by literally hundreds of measures and rankings of the readiness and potential of Mississippians to compete in an increasingly high tech manufacturing world.

Several months ago in an interview by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, State Economist Darren Webb was asked to identify what in his opinion was the biggest problem facing Mississippi’s sluggish economy.  His answer was simple – the current state of human capital.  For purposes of this discussion we can define “human capital” as the value of a person when he/she steps up to the pay window on Friday.

The supporting evidence for Dr. Webb’s assessment is abundant.  Such evidence is what LED Forbes Magazine to recently rank Mississippi 50th as a state in which to do business citing the perception held by many of the state’s lack of potential for the development of a workforce for the future wave of high tech manufacturing.  The Washington Post reported on a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that ranked Mississippi as 50th in internet access, 50th in healthcare, 50th in job opportunities and as the 49th most educated.  Finally a recent Pew Foundation study predicted that within the next 25 years 47 percent of the jobs currently being done by humans will be done by machines.  The jobs for humans will be those that create, operate, and “write the code” for those machines.

Nowhere in any of these studies by internationally prominent organizations was there a question as to whether Mississippi wished to participate in tomorrow’s world of work.  Nor did anyone say that they would wait around until Mississippi “caught up” with her sister states and indeed the rest of the world.  The reality is that an adequate education for the broadest segment of the population possible will be the determinant as to whether Mississippi sinks or swims.

As to Initiative 42 itself, this is admittedly an unorthodox approach to guaranteeing funding for any program.  A student of public policy would stipulate that placing typically annual revenue and expenditure functions in a constitution is not normally advisable but it happens on occasion.  Secondly, the role of a Chancery Judge in assessing and making a decision on the status of equity funding across school district lines is understandable, given that the issue of equity funding has historically wound up in the courts for resolution.  A state with such a deficit in education must be creative in discovering how to raise all boats rather than merely dispensing “life chances” based on the zip codes of the school districts.  At the end of the day, Initiative 42 is in reality a rather measured approach to making certain that education simply gets a fixed share of revenue growth when it occurs until funding levels become sufficient to provide an adequate education to as many Mississippi children as possible.

Much has been said about Initiative 42 usurping the traditional role of the legislature.  Indeed, the Appropriations Committee chairs in the respective houses, Sen. Buck Clark and Rep. Herb Frierson, are highly capable and have done as much as possible in propping up education funding.  The past 15 years have simply proved that such good intentions are unsustainable as the law currently stands.  In the event that the vote on Initiative 42 is successful, the Legislature should redouble its resolve to address education policy to match the stable revenues that will result.

In summary, extraordinary times and circumstances call for extraordinary solutions.  The opportunities for funding Mississippi’s public education at a level enabling Mississippi to compete with her sister states and indeed the rest of the world are fast diminishing.  Initiative 42 is clearly an extraordinary solution.  All Mississippians deserve a chance to see if putting a constitutional floor under education funding works.  Most assuredly the nation would take notice.  A vote otherwise is a vote for the status quo and far too often in the case of Mississippi that is 50th.

» Dr. Marty Wiseman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Public Administration and Director Emeritus of the The Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. His email address is wmw3@msstate.edu.

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