Investing in education to improve Mississippi

Published 11:33 am Thursday, January 4, 2018

The 2018 legislative session is underway and, once again, education is a hot button issue down in Jackson.

Presently, Mississippi’s public schools are underfunded to the tune of $200 million for the current fiscal year, and that’s while using a formula so old as to be obsolete.

And that’s just problems in funding to give students an adequate education; the peanuts that teachers are paid is an entirely different issue, though it directly correlates to the teacher shortage that Mississippi has been experiencing for years, especially in low-income regions like the Delta.

In December, the Census Bureau reported that for the third consecutive year more people have left Mississippi for other states than have moved in. On the whole, the state lost 8,000 people from July 2016 to July 2017, and there were 6,500 more births than deaths in the same period. So, all in all, 1,300 people left the state.

And many of them will never come back.

The majority of those migrating are millennials — young, college-educated professionals who don’t stick around after graduation because, quite frankly, there are better opportunities elsewhere.

Why remain in Mississippi for a 25K annual salary when you can move to Atlanta, or Nashville, or Dallas, etc., and make double or triple in pay? Even when you account for an increased cost of living in those cities, the opportunities for advancement and promotion are too good to turn down for most young professionals.

The problem has created enough noise that the state government is considering a 5-year state income tax break for college graduates who agree to remain in Mississippi post-graduation.

While it sounds like a good idea in theory, the amount of money that might be saved with that incentive likely won’t equal to what money can be made outside Mississippi by those professionals.

But that’s par for the course when it comes to the state legislature. Many of Mississippi’s budget woes are due to the overwhelming number of tax breaks given to various companies to bring jobs to Mississippi. Think the Nissan plant in Canton, or the Toyota plant in Blue Springs. Both of those deals cash in to the tune of $485 million in tax breaks and other incentives.

Sure, both plants have provided much-needed jobs and helped the local economies of Canton, Tupelo, New Albany and Pontotoc, but has it helped the state as a whole? It sure doesn’t feel like it.

The latest solution seems to be another round of discussions about a state lottery because various lawmakers think it will solve some of the problems facing the state. I’m skeptical, if only because any money generated from a state lottery likely won’t go to where it’s needed most—healthcare, education, the desperate and dangerous situation that are Mississippi roads and bridges, all of which are currently being funded (so not funded at all) by city and county taxes since there was no money to allot for the Mississippi Department of Transportation in the current state budget.

But really, you can boil all of this down to two basic points: Mississippi needs jobs, good paying ones, that will entice young professionals to stay and raise a family. Keeping people here is one way to reenergize local economies, but so is providing an education to the children of the state who will grow up and have to make that decision to stay or leave when adulthood arrives.

And perhaps the most obvious point is this: In 2015, the national average in spending per student was $11,392. Mississippi was the fifth-lowest, spending $8,459 per student. Only Oklahoma, Arizona, Idaho and Utah spent less.

With a population of 3 million people, Utah has one of the best economies in the country, ranked at No. 4 in Business Insider’s annual rankings. Forty-one percent of its population hold at least a two-year college degree and 72.9-percent graduated high school.  Utah also has an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, 0.9 percent lower than the national average, and features the top job growth rate in the country to the tune of 2.3 percent. Median income in Utah? $27,136.

Mississippi, on the other hand, has 2.98 million people and one of the worst economies in the country. Just 30-percent of the population is college educated; only 66-percent received a high school diploma and job growth clocks in at 1-percent with the unemployment rate at 4.3 percent.

Mississippi is second to last in math proficiency in the nation, and dead last in reading. Utahn children rank ninth in reading and 15 in math.

While that all sounds good for Utah, it’s not all roses and rainbows. In 1995, Utah was one of the top investors in education in the country. With just over two million people in the state at the time, Utahns bought into education and, 13 years later, are reaping the benefits as those school-children of the 1990s are now college-educated, young professionals with families of their own. The state has also added a million people in a just over a decade, so it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of those school kids didn’t pack up and go to California after graduation.

That investment from Utahns has resulted in more jobs and made the state one of the best, and fastest-growing economies in the country, but the Beehive State has since stopped funding education and lost $1.2 billion in funding each year.

People are taking notice, including Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who released a strategy in Fall 2017 to once again fully fund Utah’s public school system.

In an op-ed written for The Salt-Lake Tribune in Oct. 2017, Nolan Karras summed it up perfectly for both Utah and Mississippi.

“Decreased investment in education cannot continue if we wish to sustain the nation’s best economy.”

Likewise, Mississippi’s disregard for the funding of its public schools cannot continue if the state’s lawmakers truly want to make Mississippi better.   

I’m afraid it’s education or bust.

Donica Phifer is managing editor of the EAGLE. You can reach her at donica.phifer@oxfordeagle.com