The Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi met in Tupelo last week and told us a lot of what we already know that the state’s economic future depends largely on increasing the educational level of its citizens.
But it doesn’t hurt to hear it again and again. The 16-county region of Northeast Mississippi continues not only to lag the nation, but also the state in both per capita income and the percent of adults with a high school diploma. And those two numbers tie directly together.
In 2008, Northeast Mississippi’s per capita income was $26,022 compared to $29,040 for the rest of the state and $38,615 for the nation. Our number of adults with a high school diploma stands at 69 percent compared to 78 percent in Mississippi and 84 percent for the nation.
The Southern Education Foundation’s updated report, “Miles to Go Mississippi: Rebuilding Education,” predicts, “In the decades ahead, once the national economy rebounds, Mississippi will expand its economic development and enjoy a higher quality of life only if it increases annually the number of well-educated students who become tomorrow’s well-trained workers and well-informed citizens.”
The foundation’s study shows that 53 percent of the difference between our state’s per capita income and the nation is due solely to the state’s lower levels of education. That’s $5,319 a year for each adult in the state.
Not only do we have to keep our children in high school, but we’ve also got to see them through college. A high school graduate earns only 48 cents for every dollar that a college graduate earns. And a high school dropout earns only 29 cents for every dollar of income for a college graduate.
Fortunately, here in New Albany the city schools have a relatively low high school dropout rate of 6.9 percent, according to Dr. Charles Garrett, superintendent of schools.
One of the principal problems in Mississippi is the lack of school readiness for children entering kindergarten and first grade. A lot of the problem traces to the lack of availability of pre-kindergarten programs for all students.
New Albany has about 175 students a year entering kindergarten. The district operates a tuition-based program that serves 30 students and another 55 or so come through Head Start programs, according to Dr. Garrett. Some students have attended other daycare programs.
The education foundation says Mississippi’s fundamental problem is “far too many of its youngest students, especially low-income students, are not school-ready, fall behind quickly, and never catch up.”
We are fortunate that the situation in New Albany and the surrounding area is better than many parts of the state. We think there is a simple reason for that: Most all of our students attend public schools. Fortunately we do not have the splintered educational systems prevalent in so much of our state.
We firmly believe that a community is best served when all of its students—rich, poor, white, black, Hispanic or otherwise—are in the public schools. A community can be no better than the quality of its public schools.
We still have work to do to change the culture so that all of our adults here in New Albany and Union County recognize the dollars-and-cents value of education, both for themselves and for their children. But we’re on the right track.