Rolling along with improvement plan

by

Published: August 23,2004

As Mississippians are quickly learning, Gov. Haley Barbour’s agenda items will not collect dust. Such is the case with Blueprint Mississippi, an ambitious 10-year, public-private plan to improve the state’s economic status.

“This is not a study that’s going to sit on the shelf,” said Barbour. “This is a good start.”

Nearly 600 business leaders from around the state attended the Blueprint Mississippi update luncheon meeting at the Hilton Hotel in Jackson August 9, where organizers presented a strategic platform centered on four primary themes — innovation, image, people and partnerships — for moving Mississippi’s economy forward.

Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) and a member of the eight-person Blueprint Mississippi steering committee, described the meeting as “not so much the end of the process, but a rather significant milepost that marks the beginning of a foundation for building a more prosperous Mississippi.”

“The presentation went great,” he said. “The big picture is looking at the major thrusts of the plan, the opportunity to drive our partnerships, to work on our technology and to really focus on using Mississippi strengths to target industries.”

Wilson will take the plan on the road in a fashion similar to last year’s Mississippi Express tour. The four-month, 21-community Mississippi Caucus tour kicked off August 11 in Greenville.

“We want feedback on the strategic plan,” explained Wilson. “Then it will be up to us, the business community, to develop the approaches for carrying out parts of the plan that seem feasible.”

MEC launched Blueprint Mississippi last January as an independent, private-sector effort. Ole Miss Chancellor Robert C. Khayat, chairman of Blueprint Mississippi, unveiled the proposal last October. Since then, more than 1,000 business leaders around the state have helped mold the plan.

The Robert M. Hearin Foundation, Mississippi Partnership for Economic Development, Public Education Forum of Mississippi, MEC and private businesses — BancorpSouth, BellSouth, Dupont, Entergy, Mississippi Power and Trustmark — funded the Blueprint Mississippi study, which Wilson pointed out resulted in “a strategic plan, not a tactical one.”

“We’re hoping groups such as trade associations, legislators and private citizens will take some of these recommendations and move them to the next level,” he said. “The opportunity is not so much what it delivers in a neat little package, but what it promotes as the next step.”

Steering committee members are: BancorpSouth CEO Aubrey Patterson; BellSouth Mississippi president John McCullouch; DuPont-DeLisle plant manager Pat Nichols; Entergy Mississippi CEO Carolyn Shanks; MEC president Blake Wilson; Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat (chairman); and, Trustmark CEO Richard Hickson.

Boosting economic development efforts

Pete Walley, director of long-range economic planning for the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), was especially interested in Blueprint Mississippi’s goal to restore the Economic Development Planning Act of 1987. The IHL originally hired him to enact the legislation, which was created to establish and sustain an economic development vision and strategic plan for the state.

“I think the Blueprint process is very important and that Mississippi business people are beginning to realize we need a more coherent plan about what our public sector does for the direction of the state,” said Walley. “The signal being sent is that we can’t continue the pattern we’ve had for 70 years: trying to break out of this position of being last in everything we’d like to be higher in, and first in everything we’d like to be lower in. At the heart of Blueprint, we must do something different.”

The 2004 Kids Count report of the Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates that 13% (approximately 25,000) of Mississippians age 16 to 19 are not in school, did not earn a high school diploma and are not employed, said Walley. “What do they do to occupy their time?” he asked, adding that the annual dropout costs to Mississippi taxpayers exceeds $180 million.

“Anytime change comes along, it makes the system really nervous,” said Walley. “All the different players are asking the question: ‘how’s this going to affect me?’”

Changing Mississippi’s image

When he served as governor from 1980 to 1984, William Winter routinely traveled to New York to discuss Mississippi issues with editors of national print publications.

“We set up regular meetings with the New York media and found a lot of friends up there,” he said. “At the time, the executive editor of Fortune magazine was from Edwards, the executive editor of Forbes was from Mississippi, and so was the head of the Associated Press, so we created a good network of friends in the media and I hope it helped move things in the right direction.”

Even though Mississippi’s image has been greatly enhanced in the last two decades, old stereotypes die slowly, said Winter.

“Many people don’t think anything’s changed since 1960,” he said, shaking his head. “The way we change that image is through substantive effort, by making things happen that reflect favorably on the state.”

Mississippi still has work to do on race relations, emphasized Winter.

“We’re still suffering from the images of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and to overcome those stereotypes, there is a great mission for all of us,” he said. “What happened in Neshoba County lately helped, when the residents came together and expressed their sorrow for what happened in 1964. That will have a lasting impact all over. The New York Times recently ran a front-page article that had to do with tourism around civil rights in the south and there was a mention of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. All of this is part of a pattern of repairing our image, but it has to be accompanied by specific activities in the state.”

Winter believes that Blueprint Mississippi will succeed because it is business-driven.

“We just can’t leave it to state government to solve all those problems,” he said. “I’ve found a willingness on the part of most business leaders to get behind significant civic public initiatives and continue to make progress. We couldn’t have passed the Education Reform Act of 1982 without significant business support. However, as much progress as we’ve made, we are still lagging desperately at the bottom of the list.”

Improving the public education system

Dr. Henry Johnson, state superintendent of education, said Blueprint Mississippi’s goals parallel actions taken by the state board in the last several months.

“The state board defined the minimum number of reading preparation courses required to obtain a license to teach elementary school — from six to 15,” he said. “No other state has done that. The board knows how important reading is, and how having students proficient in reading will determine to a great extent what other kinds of things they’re willing to do in and out of school.

“The board also passed a policy requiring four units of mathematics to graduate instead of three. And they also allowed us to enter a contract to provide opportunities for every school in the state to participate in a diagnostic assessment program for students. I’ve been a firm believer for years that if we are serious about helping all kids be successful at a high level, we’re going to have to do more in diagnosing the strengths and weaknesses of kids vis-à-vis the curriculum standard. Now we have a vehicle in place to allow any school in the state to do that.”

Eventually, the state board will be asked to approve a policy that adopts a college preparatory curriculum for high school students as the standard curriculum, said Johnson.

“When I mentioned a college preparatory curriculum, there was mediocre enthusiasm for it,” said Johnson. “Blueprint Mississippi is trying to generate interest, more knowledge and support for a more comprehensive effort to improve education, not just K-12, but higher education as well, and use that for the basis of a broader improvement in Mississippi’s economy. To do that, we must challenge students more than we do, even more than they think they need to be challenged.”

Business support is essential for public schools “to get better and stay strong,” said Johnson.

“The business community needs to continue to support accountability and diagnostic assessments in addition to assessments for accountability purposes,” he said. “There’s plenty of work to go around. To paraphrase an old saying: war’s too important to be left to the generals. Well, education is too important to be left to the educators. The business model should reflect continuous improvement, deciding priorities, putting resources to priorities and collecting, analyzing and using data to reach objectives. It is crucial to do this in order to make better decisions for our children.”

For more information, visit www.blueprintmississippi.com.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

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