Friday, December 12, 2014

State’s long-term growth stems from STEM

*First appeared in Dec. 11 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

For years, I’ve heard anecdotes about Mississippi having too many elementary education teacher graduates. Yeah, yeah. Too many college-age students want to teach kindergarten or first grade as a profession. So what?

Recent data from the Institutions of Higher Learning puts the issue into perspective.

In the 2013-2014 school year, 1,091 students graduated in a teacher education program within our public university system. Nearly two-thirds of all teacher education graduates earned a degree in elementary education. These statistics reflect similar outcomes from the previous school year (2012-2013) in which a little more than sixty percent of all teacher education graduates majored in elementary education.

Considered as a stand-alone data point, this may not raise your eyebrows. But it should, and here’s why.

In the 2013-2014 school year:

Alcorn State University had zero graduates in the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics education. ASU had one mathematics education graduate.

Delta State University had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and mathematics education. DSU had one biology education graduate.

Jackson State University had one graduate in mathematics education.

Mississippi State University had zero graduates in the field of chemistry education. MSU had five biology education graduates; 14 mathematics education graduates; and one physics education graduate.

Mississippi Valley State University had zero mathematics education graduates and one biology education graduate.

Mississippi University for Women had zero graduates in the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics education. MUW had one physics education graduate.

The University of Mississippi had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and physics education. UM had two biology education graduates and 12 mathematics education graduates.

The University of Southern Mississippi had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and physics education. USM had seven biology education graduates and seven mathematics education graduates.

See a trend? A very small portion of Mississippi’s future teaching crop is choosing STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) subject areas. This is particularly troubling, given that STEM-related fields are among the fastest growing and highest paying sectors in the current and future labor market.

If our children are going to be successful, we’ve got to make sure they have access to quality teachers who can prepare them for the workforce or college. Whichever path they choose, STEM skills will be a vital component to success.

But with graduation numbers like these, is access to STEM education a reality? I’m not sure.

One avenue that might help alleviate these numbers is encouraging more women to pursue teaching careers in STEM areas. According to the OECD, “gender differences are…apparent in young people’s choice of field of study. Engineering, manufacturing and construction are by far the most popular fields of study for boys.” Inversely, the OECD has found that girls are more dispersed among social sciences, business and law, health and welfare, and other services.

According to National Education Association data, Mississippi’s teacher population is overwhelmingly female, with men making up just 17.9 percent of those in the profession.

In fact, the low percentage of male faculty may partially explain why our public universities are graduating so few teachers in STEM areas, given gender biases for specific fields.

The state has an interest in shifting teacher graduates to high-growth fields. It’s a positive move to secure our state’s future growth prospects, since STEM careers don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. But it also helps balance the job search process: Too many elementary education teachers may over-saturate the market, resulting in unemployment for even qualified teachers. On the other hand, I’ve never met an unemployed chemistry education graduate.

To bring this full circle: Teaching is a noble profession, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with elementary education. Except that there are too many college students who pursue teaching careers in that field.

The state’s future is better served by a concentrated push to increase quality teachers in the STEM fields.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Legislative committees: The who, what, where, and why

*First appeared in the Dec. 4, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

‘Tis the season once again for the legislative session. Next month, the 2015 Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature will convene. The specific date and time is noon on January 6. That’s precisely 36 days from the time I am writing this column – but who’s counting?

Last year in this space, I gave you a preview of the people, places, politics, and policies of the Capitol. This year I’ll attempt to provide you with more context as we approach the session, a.k.a. the “sesh” to some very cool Capitol workers.

Since I haven’t seen much writing out there about committees, I’ll do my best to introduce you to legislative committees: The who, what, where, and why.

First, a short primer on how committees operate: The head of each chamber (that’s the Lieutenant Governor in the Senate and the Speaker in the House of Representatives) must assign every single bill to a committee. After the bill has been “referred” (as it is called) to a committee, then that bill becomes property of the committee. The committee, controlled by the chairman, must decide what to do with the bill: Bring it up for a vote? Assign it to a subcommittee? Or do nothing and let it die?

After a bill is passed out of committee, it then goes to the full chamber for a vote. Usually, the committee chairman will handle the bill on the floor, explaining what it does and urging the members to vote for it.

As you can see, committee chairmen have a lot of power in the Mississippi Legislature – so if your business takes you before the Legislature, you’d be wise to study up on your chairmen and your committees.

Committees are like mobile apps. If you’ve got an idea for government, or a specific complaint, or want some taxpayer funding, well, there’s a committee for that. You want to change our turkey season? Think: Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Committee. Want to promote downtown development through a state-funded grant? Think: Appropriations Committee. You want Jones County to become its own state? Think again.

The House of Representatives and the State Senate each have their own committees. Some have the same names (both houses have Education Committees, for example), but others have different names. The House manages its finance-related issues through the Ways and Means Committee – which is also known as the “ways to be mean” committee. On the other hand, the Senate handles its finance issues through the aptly named Finance Committee.

I’ll highlight several of the larger committees for your reading pleasure.

Some of my favorite committees are the money committees. Those include: House Appropriations, Senate Appropriations, House Ways and Means, and Senate Finance.

All taxpayer funds appropriated for a specific purpose – such as funding for a state agency – are handled through appropriations committees in each house. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is Rep. Herb Frierson, a Republican from Poplarville. The Senate Appropriations Committee chairman is Sen. Buck Clarke, a Republican from Hollandale. (By the way, Chairman Clarke is sometimes referred to as the “Gentleman Farmer” because of his Delta lineage. It’s one of my favorite nicknames at the Capitol.)

On the House side, this committee meets in Room 201-A; on the Senate side, appropriations meets in Room 216, which is also the old Supreme Court room.

The other big money committees are those that handle finance issues. Whereas appropriations committees handle spending of funds, these committees handle incoming revenues.

The House Ways and Means Committee is chaired by Rep. Jeff Smith, a Republican from Columbus; this group meets in Room 201-B. The Senate Finance Committee is chaired by Sen. Joey Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall, and it also meets in Room 216. (You’ll notice that South Mississippi fares pretty well in terms of money committee chairmenships.)

The newest committees to be formed are those that look at government reform issues. Both chambers have similar committees called “Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency” which oversee a litany of issues: technology initiatives, good government ideas, pay raises, and many others. These committees serve as a sort of catch-all during the session. I have had the opportunity to work closely with Sen. Nancy Collins, a Republican from Tupelo who chairs the Senate’s AET committee. She’s one of the most reform-minded senators in the Mississippi Legislature – and that’s good news for John Q. Taxpayer.

Energy is a big item for families and, as it turns out, for state government. Both legislative bodies have an energy committee, which oversees issues related to oil and gas and Public Service Commission regulations, among others. My uncle and Jones County native Rep. Gary Staples serves as vice chairman of the House Energy Committee. This is particularly helpful for the Free State, since oil and gas is a big economic driver in the Pine Belt area.

Other committees important to the Pine Belt include those dealing with agriculture, community and junior colleges, education, and county affairs. In fact, Jones County Rep. Bobby Shows serves as Chairman of the House County Affairs committee, which handles local issues dealing with supervisors, county purchases, land transfers, and other issues.

Want a full listing of the various legislative committees? Check out www.legislature.ms.gov.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

An attitude of gratitude can boost personal latitudes

*First appeared in Nov. 26, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

When you read this column, you’ll likely be prepping for your annual Thanksgiving tradition, whether that means driving to your parent’s house for home-style cooking (like me) or cooking for your family (not like me) or something else unique to your situation.

Whatever your annual Turkey Day habits, the shared focus of this holiday is a reminder to be grateful for our many blessings.

Being thankful, it turns out, doesn’t just benefit others; it boosts your own personal health, too.

In 2011, researchers at Harvard reviewed the mental health benefits of gratitude and offered some advice on how to cultivate a thankful state of mind.

For starters, they examined the root of gratitude, which has its origins in Latin. The Latin word “gratia” means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness, depending on the context, and in some ways, “gratitude encompasses all of these meanings.”

Researchers conclude that “with gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves…[helping] people connect to something larger.”

Harvard’s examination of gratefulness included a reference to several psychological studies. One study required one set of subjects to write about things they were grateful had happened, and another set of subjects to write about things that displeased and/or irritated them. The result? Those who wrote about their gratitude were, on average, more optimistic than their testing counterparts. The happy group also exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor.

(To be fair to the unhappy group, I too would be grumpy if someone made me spend my days writing about things that irritate me.)

Other studies have been conducted on couples in relationships, finding that couples that display gratitude between partners are generally happier and have more honest, open communication.

Yet another study conducted by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that employees felt motivated to work harder after feeling appreciated – that is, after a manager showed gratitude for their efforts.

Studies like these cannot necessarily prove cause and effect, but they do typically support an association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being.

So how do we become more thankful? The Harvard folks advise the following:

Write thank you notes.

Thank someone mentally.

Keep a gratitude journal.

Count your blessings.

Pray.

That seems fairly simple, doesn’t it?

More important than the researchers at Harvard, though, is a divine directive to be thankful. Consider the numerous times when the Bible tells us to have a spirit of gratitude:

Give thanks to the Lord, call on His name; make known His doings among the peoples! (1 Chronicles 16:8)

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever! (Psalm 107:1)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)

This Thanksgiving, we can all be thankful there’s no disagreement on what makes us cheerful. Gratitude is, in large part, key to a happy, healthy state of mind.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Someone finally tells the truth about Obamacare, but it’s not pretty

*First appeared in the Nov. 19, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Wonder if Jonathan Gruber regrets adhering to that old adage, “honesty is the best policy?”

You know Gruber. He’s the M.I.T. economist who told the truth about Obamacare, possibly the first supporter of the law to do so.

Here are a few nuggets from his public comments: First, the bill was written in a “tortured way to make sure CBO didn’t score the mandate as taxes,” because if the Congressional Budget Office had done that, the bill would have died. Second, “if you made a law that said healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it wouldn’t have passed, just like lack of transparency is a huge political advantage, and basically, you know, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing passed.”

So why do we care what Jonathan Gruber says about Obamacare? The Washington Post said he played a “central role designing [Obamacare] and shepherding it through Congress” and also convinced the President that “a viable health care reform plan would have to include an individual mandate to buy insurance.” The New York Times has referred to him as “Mr. Mandate.” The Wall Street Journal calls him “an architect of the Affordable Care Act.”

In other words: We can take him at his word when he says the very foundation of the healthcare plan was misleading at best, an outright lie at worst.

In fact, that’s exactly what Ron Fournier (who “openly rooted for Obamacare’s successes”) called this debacle in the National Journal: “I have to admit, as a supporter, that Obamacare was built and sold on a foundation of lies. No way around it.”

Fournier’s not the only detractor – not by a long shot. Tevi Troy writes in the Wall Street Journal: “The all-too-candid MIT economist is not likely to have a hard time paying for his own health care—Mr. Gruber reportedly received $400,000 for advising the Obama administration on the Affordable Care Act. But he is having a hard time explaining his unguarded comments about the law. His views may be obnoxious, but Mr. Gruber has performed a public service by finally telling the truth about ObamaCare.”

March Thiessen writes in the Washington Post that the “reason Democrats are running from Gruber is the same reason conservatives should be thanking him: Gruber has exposed what liberals really think of the American people.”

Not so fast, says President Obama. The President explained that Gruber “never worked on our staff.” (Don’t worry about the fact Gruber was paid nearly $400,000 by the Obama administration as noted above, nor the fact that he is the “intellectual author of the individual mandate,” nor the fact that he personally met in the Oval Office with President Obama and head of the Congressional Budget Office to discuss the healthcare legislation.) Even Nancy Pelosi attempted to distance herself, saying she doesn’t know who Gruber is. This seems odd, given that she referenced him personally during her comments in the Obamacare debate.

Top Democrats seem to think rational Americans like you and me will buy their flimsy excuses, will overlook their previous dealings with Gruber, and will rock on like nothing’s happened.

But what do they think we are – stupid?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Aspirational philosophy takes back seat to immediate gratification

*First appeared in the Nov. 12 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

I’ve been thinking a lot about space travel.

It started a few weeks ago with the tragedy of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two crashing in the Mohave Desert, killing a test pilot and injuring the other. If you’re not familiar with the company, here’s a primer. Virgin Galactic is the world’s first commercial spaceline – or it intends to be, if commercial space travel becomes a successful venture. The company’s website says it aims to “transform access to outer space.”

I had two competing thoughts upon hearing about the tragedy: The first one, of course, was “what an awful tragedy.” The second, of course, was “man, it would be cool to go to space. I hope they succeed, eventually.”

Fast-forward to last week when I saw the preview for Interstellar (starring Matthew McConaughey who is, coincidentally, also rumored to appear in an upcoming movie about the Free State of Jones). The premise of this movie, or at least what I gleaned from the preview, is that Planet Earth is no longer sustainable, and lead man McConaughey must seek another world inhabitable by humankind. That leads him on a perilous mission to outer space – and leaves the viewer (me) wondering if he succeeds in saving the human race?

I let my mind sort of wander down this path – you know, the scenario in which humanity is no longer able to live on earth and must seek out other planets for long-term lodging. It wasn’t pretty. I concluded that we’d all die here worshipping the gods of immediate gratification.

The American Scholar frames the issue by referencing an old but apparently timeless work from the 1970s: “Our growing self-absorption was starving the idealism and aspirations of the postwar era. The ‘logic of individualism,’ argued [Christopher] Lasch in his 1978 polemic, The Culture of Narcissism, had transformed everyday life into a brutal social competition for affirmation…Yet even [Lasch] had no idea how self-centered mainstream culture would become. Nor could [he] have imagined the degree to which the selfish reflexes of the individual would become the template for an entire society.”

The American Scholar continues, “Our whole socioeconomic system is adopting an almost childlike impulsiveness, wholly obsessed with short-term gain and narrow self-interest and increasingly oblivious to long-term consequences.”

And this final point brings me full circle. If this is an apt description of the current state of our culture, then the Interstellar conundrum isn’t so much a challenge as it is a doomsday scenario.

Our intellectual energies are focused on the here and now. The consumer-driven marketplace is developing products that reflect these larger societal trends. It seems the latest question is: How can I use as little brain as possible when at home? Oh yeah, by purchasing that Amazon Echo thing (a black cylinder that responds to your voice, plays music, answers questions, keeps track of grocery lists, etc.). Because writing your own list is just too taxing.

That’s not what I call progress, you guys. We’re spending far too much time on things that – in my humble opinion – don’t matter. A black cone in your household may make your life easier, but it won’t put a man on Mars.

Sometimes I think aspirational goals like space travel seem far too, well, aspirational for my generation. Are we really too self-centered to care about the future? Have we really lost the vision for scientific exploration, for technological advances that matter?

I’m not sure. I think my generation can overcome its self-absorption, but we’ll need visionary leaders who don’t comply with the social constructs of an impulse society.

I’ll cease my rambling with this quote from the President who championed space travel and captivated an entire nation: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Will my generation choose to do what is hard or what is easy?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hobnobbing an annual tradition that keeps on growing

*First appeared in the Nov. 5, 2014, edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

More than 1,800 business leaders, elected officials, and others in search of a serious networking opportunity attended the 18th Annual Hobnob Mississippi hosted by the Mississippi Economic Council last week.

It was a record crowd that drew folks from all across this fine state.

While the event is usually held in an outdoor location – specifically, under a big tent at the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum – the political rally-styled event was moved indoors to the Mississippi Coliseum this year. (Organizers opted not to tempt Mother Nature who was threatening inclement weather.)

My hobnobbing started somewhat late this year, and I missed a few of the early speakers. That being said, I’ll give you a recap of the ones I saw, just in case you missed the annual event.

I arrived just in time to see Speaker of the House Philip Gunn deliver comments to the large crowd. Gunn’s comments focused largely on the efforts of the Republican-majority Legislature to improve the quality of education for Mississippi’s kids.

He cited the MEC-led Blueprint report that endorsed charter schools, saying Republicans have implemented charter schools since taking control of the House and Senate.

Charter schools are about making sure parents have a choice in where to send their children to school. “You’re not bound to your hometown for your doctor, your lawyer, your mechanic – but when it comes to schools, you haven’t had that flexibility,” said Gunn of the state’s education system.

He touted the state’s early childhood pilot program and said Republicans had increased teacher pay along with implementing the first-ever performance-based compensation component. Importantly, he noted the Legislature’s funding commitment to education, saying public schools had received significant increases even when other state priorities saw cuts in their operating budgets.

“Don’t let anyone mislead you into questioning” the Legislature’s commitment to public education, Gunn said, a not-so-subtle reference to the current efforts by Democrat-aligned groups to paint Republicans as anti-education.

Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber spoke next with boundless enthusiasm about the city’s future. The Mayor told the business crowd that Jackson plans to lead on several fronts. “Crime is down” and the capital city is “starting a national conversation on infrastructure improvement.” (That was good to hear, since my water color alternates between a watered-down Lipton tea and a more stout Earl Gray.)

Both Travis Childers and Sen. Thad Cochran spoke at the event, but I won’t recount their comments. By the time you read this column, that race will be over…I think.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves dug in hard at the left-wing policies of the President, saying Obamacare, with its continuous rollout of regulations and fees, was like “death by 1,000 cuts” on Mississippi businesses, causing them to reduce wages, invest less in their company, or sometimes both.

Reeves touted the Republicans’ educational achievements, saying Mississippi “is a leader, not a laggard” on teacher pay. By getting the state’s fiscal house in order, the GOP Legislature has been able to put more money into priority areas like education – to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars more over the last three years.

To make sure our children are ready for the next wave of innovation and jobs, taxpayers expect results from the state’s educational entities. “That’s why reforms must drive our spending,” explained Reeves, who also said educational opportunity should not be dictated by a child’s zip code or the parent’s profession.

If you looked up “fiscal hawk” in the dictionary, you’d likely find a picture of Reeves; so, it’s not surprising he spent a large portion of his speech on financial issues. In the last year, two out of every three state employees have had a pay raise, causing Reeves to ask: Isn’t it time for taxpayers to get a pay raise (through tax cuts)?

He said it would be difficult to do, particularly given that state agencies have already asked for over a billion dollars in new spending for the coming fiscal year. But, he said, “I’m sticking with my conservative principles to get our state’s fiscal house in order, which means having the courage to say no.”

Gov. Phil Bryant spent the majority of his speech combatting any negative perceptions about Mississippi by highlighting positive rankings the state has amassed over the past few months.

Mississippi ranks among the best in the nation for economic development; our cost-of-living is significantly lower (meaning our dollar goes further here than in, say, Washington, D.C.); and we come in at number five in the nation in terms of women-owned businesses. The Magnolia State is even ranked the best county in which to practice medicine (thanks, tort reform!).

Miss Mississippi Jasmine Murray entertained the crowd right before lunch, and that’s when I skirted off to the next thing. Overall, it was a pretty enjoyable Hobnob – so enjoyable, in fact, that I’ll be sure to attend again next year.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Empower Mississippi

*First appeared in the Oct. 29 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

My friend and Laurel-native Grant Callen has a new job: Founder and President of Empower Mississippi, a new grassroots advocacy organization based in the Metro Jackson area.

The group’s lofty name is matched by its lofty goal: “To create opportunity and make Mississippi the most free and prosperous state in the nation.” To do that, they’re empowering citizens with tools and information to engage in the public policy process, holding the Legislature accountable through initiatives like scorecards, and pushing for reforms that align with their mission.

Initially, the group will focus on education choice, meaning they’ll be fighting for legislation and other regulatory changes that empower parents, not bureaucrats, to make educational decisions for their children. The group’s very existence is a threat to the status quo, which, by the way, is already hollering.

About a week ago, I got a press release announcing Empower’s first-ever education choice scorecard based on votes taken during the 2012, 2013, and 2014 legislative sessions. Just a few days later, I saw an email from another education group imploring readers not to be fooled by “the great lie that is school choice.”

Coincidence? I doubt it. Like many Jones Countians before him, Grant has successfully ruffled some feathers. In the education realm, that’s the telltale sign of doing something right.

Empower’s Education Choice Scorecard grades Mississippi legislators on key education votes involving bills related to dyslexia scholarships, charter schools, speech language scholarships, and special needs education. Here’s how Free State legislators scored:

On the House side, Reps. Bo Eaton and Omeria Scott both received the lowest grade possible (F). Rep. Johnny Stringer received a D minus. Reps. Bobby Shows and Gary Staples both received a score of A plus.

On the Senate side, Sen. Chris McDaniel received a score of A plus, but Sen. Haskins Montgomery received an F.

A full list of scores and the methodology used to determine rankings can be accessed at their website, www.empowerms.org.

In addition to the scorecard, Empower Mississippi will track legislation, alert citizens to key votes, and help connect citizens with legislative leaders. While education choice is the group’s initial focus, Empower is also dedicated to advocating for economic freedom and a fiscally responsible state government.

With Callen at the helm, Empower is currently touring the state, bringing its message of education choice to parents, teachers, community leaders, and citizens statewide. Groups interested in hearing from Empower can make that request on the organization’s website. (And, if I had to guess, I bet Callen would make a special trip to his native city to share the Empower message.)

In the organization’s press release, Callen explained that empowering parents with education choice tears down “barriers and [helps] ensure that every child in the state has the opportunity to receive a quality education. Implementing policies that promote economic freedom…[removes] obstacles for people to earn a living in a field of their choice and [promotes] long-term economic growth for the state.”

Over the years, I have developed a healthy dose of cynicism about organizations and their true intentions. But having an opportunity to get to know and work alongside Grant Callen the past few years has shown me he’s a man whose sincerity I ought not question. Callen is a true believer – he’s got a passion for empowering citizens to take control of their destiny, and, in his mind, that starts with education choice.

I tend to agree.

Hats off to my fellow Laurel native who’s using his talents to help give parents a choice. Then again, it’s not about the parents, is it? To quote Callen: In Mississippi, “greater choice is needed. For the children trapped by a failing system, help can’t come soon enough.”