By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON — It’s been said so often that it’s cliché: Mississippi needs to invest in public education to improve its economic future.
The warm-and-fuzzy sentiment gets polite applause from politicians, even from those who consistently vote to shortchange the state’s school funding formula and from those who are unwilling to challenge the status quo by pushing for stronger school administrators or innovative teaching methods.
Still, when one of Mississippi’s most successful business executives speaks out for stronger education system, and invests millions of his own dollars to help create the change he’s seeking, that grabs people’s attention.
Former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale is helping the state chamber of commerce, the Mississippi Economic Council, promote ideas in Blueprint Mississippi, an outline of proposals to improve the state. MEC will present Blueprint to legislators in January, offering it as a ready-made policy package.
Blueprint calls for creating an early childhood education system; setting more rigorous standards for admission to and graduation from university programs that train teachers; setting a system of merit pay for teachers; bringing in more educators from Teach for America, which sends graduates of top universities to teach in some of the neediest parts of the U.S.; and eliminating the election of local school superintendents by 2015.
Barksdale has long advocated improving education by boosting literacy. In 2000, he donated $100 million to create the Barksdale Reading Institute, a group that has provided books and teacher training for some of Mississippi’s neediest schools.
“If a child can’t read, it doesn’t much matter what else you’re trying to teach them. They can’t learn science, they can’t learn history, they can’t learn math,” Barksdale said in November at the MEC’s Hobnob, a casual gathering of business and political leaders.
The Barksdale Reading Institute is now investing in leadership programs for principals.
“One person can go into a failing school, a principal that’s really a transformative go-getter, and can make a huge difference,” Barksdale said.
He rejects the notion that some children can’t learn because of their background.
“Let’s go find out why one school district does better than another when they’ve got the same demographics. Demographics is a code word for ‘black or white,’” Barksdale said, adding that the phrase “free and reduced lunch” is “a code word for ‘poor.’”
He said some people expect poor districts to have lower academic performance than more affluent ones.
“But then you say, ‘Wait a minute. Let me show you another district. It’s got the same percentage of children in poverty, or the same percentage of African-American children. And this district does well and that one doesn’t — and by the way, this one doing poorly might spend more money per child.’” Barksdale said. “How’d that happen?
“You see, that one factor refutes all these arguments about that ‘poor, black children can’t learn,’” Barksdale told the mostly white MEC audience. “Of course they can. Any child can learn. And the sooner we face up to that, the sooner we’ll get on with our business.”
Barksdale is calling on lawmakers to put $12 million into Teach for America, saying it has helped energize schools. He said the $12 million needs to be on top of the money going into the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex funding formula adopted in the late 1990s. MAEP is designed to ensure schools receive enough money to meet midlevel academic standards, but the formula has been shortchanged in recent years.
“There are a lot of people say, ‘Oh, we throw money at education. We don’t get anything for it.’ You ever heard that?” Barksdale said. “We, by the way, give less than state in the nation, except for three, per child. So let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not throwing any money at anybody.”