Reeves: Education a major element in economic growth
Mississippi is making strides toward creating a more favorable environment for attracting and encouraging new business and industry to locate in the state, but more needs to be done, especially in the field of education, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said.
Education, Reeves told the Vicksburg Kiwanis Club Tuesday, is one of the three areas Mississippi must improve if it plans to have a strong economic future and provide jobs for is residents.
“If we’re going to improve the overall economic output of our state, we must also improve the overall education attainment level of our citizens,” he said.
He said the state has increased education spending by about $400 million a year for elementary, secondary and higher education. And while state officials need to continue that investment, they also need to reform Mississippi’s education system.
One way, he said, is by consolidating school districts.
“When we took office four years ago, there were 157 school districts in state,” he said, adding that number has been reduced by the consolidation of seven school districts in four counties.
“We need to put more money into classrooms and less money in administration, and school consolidation is one way in which to do that,” he said.
Reeves said the teacher pay raise approved by the Legislature three years ago has cost the state $105 million per year and increased the salary for starting teachers to $34,490 per year, the third highest in the southeastern region.
He said the new system of grading school systems with letter grades of A through F is easier for people to understand, “Because everybody in our state — every mother and every grandma — knows what to expect from an ‘A,’ and everyone of them knows we can do better than a ‘C.’”
He said the recently implemented “Third Grade Gate,” which requires students who fail to read at the third-grade level to repeat the grade, will provide dividends in the long run.
The state Department of Education, he said, has set the standard and projected the number of students likely to be held back.
“The transition is going to be difficult for everybody,” Reeves said, “but I believe it’s better for those kids who are being held back (so) that the schools, and the principals and administrators, and teachers and the reading coaches are focused in ensuring, at least for that one year, on getting that kid up to a level where he’s having an easier time reading.
“It’s my view that kindergarten to third-grade, kids are learning to read,” he said. “Beyond the third grade, they’re reading to learn.”
If a child is struggling with reading in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade, he said, “The likelihood they’re going to be able to do their math and science homework is relatively low. The likelihood they’re going to become a statistic when they’re in the seventh, eighth and ninth grade is going to be relatedly high.”
He said he also favors public charter schools, adding, “It’s not about partisan politics, it’s about kids.”
“Every single piece of education reform that I have championed has been about focusing on what’s best for kids whether it’s best for the adults or not,” he said.
During a question-and-answer period, he said the state needs to put more emphasis on vocational education, but needs a way to determine how effective the programs are. He also commended to state Department of Education for reviewing the state’s Common Core standards.
On the economics side of developing business growth, Reeves said the state needs a responsible fiscal policy that creates a positive business environment.
“It’s because I have found when we are trying to bring new industry into the state, they are looking at the finances of their government,” he said. “The reason they do is because they look at taxes as nothing more than a cost of doing business. If the government is not fiscally responsible, obviously, their taxes are going to go up in the future, and if their taxes are going to go up in the future, their cost of doing business is going to go up in the future, and they don’t want to locate in places where that’s likely.”
In the past four years, he said, the Legislature has reduced the state’s overall debt, paying off more than $800 million in outstanding debt and brought the state’s rainy day fund to $410 million.
“We looked at the overall tax structure,” Reeves said. “There are specific taxes in our state that make it harder and harder for businesses to grow and harder to create new jobs and encourage outside industries and businesses to come in and invest in the state.”
One tax was the inventory tax levied by the state and collected by the cities and counties, and is important to local government coffers. He said under a bill passed by the Legislature, a company that pays inventory tax can claim a dollar for dollar tax credit on its state corporate income tax “so all the loss in revenue is borne by the state.”
Once the three-year program is fully implemented, he said, the program will mean a $150 million tax cut for small businesses across the state.
He said other attempts to reform the state’s income tax and eliminate the franchise tax failed in the recent session, adding, “I’m hoping they’ll be revised in the future.”