Four gubernatorial candidates talk education

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - As Mississippi inches closer to the primary elections, those seeking to be our next governor are working hard to get their message out. Four candidates took part Friday in a forum sponsored by the Mississippi Press Association.

Reporters asked questions about job creation, illegal immigration, eminent domain, openness in government and about each candidate's plan to improve education for Mississippi's children.

Pass Christian businessman Dave Dennis said if classrooms had to compete for students the way merchants compete for customers, Mississippi's school districts would be forced to improve. That's why the Republican candidate supports school vouchers and charter schools.

"People that are in a failing arena should have the opportunity to take their kids," said Dennis. "They're taxpayers just like anybody else. Take their kids and have them in an environment that will foster learning and will foster an education experience that prepares them to go out in the world and succeed."

Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant is also behind charter schools. He said the state needs to give districts enough flexibility to figure out what works for them.

"I'd like to offer every public school that opportunity," Bryant said. "I'd like to say if you'd like to stay open and teach five and a half days a week. If you'd like to be able to fire a bad teacher without retribution and you have a criteria that you can follow, we can get rid of those."

Bryant said the state has already passed laws to make districts more accountable for student performance.

"The Children's First Act said we put children first in school. It says if you have a failing school district for two years in a row, the superintendent and board members are removed from office," Bryant said. "This is the toughest law in the nation bringing accountability to school districts. Now we've got to fund public schools. That's why we tried our very best to level fund MAEP last year. We funded it the first year I was lieutenant governor. We're going to work hard to have the money to fund our schools so there is no complaining 'I don't have the money to do it.' But we've also got to demand accountability."

However, Hattiesburg Mayor and Democrat Johnny DuPree doesn't see charter schools as a complete answer. Instead he'd like to see an education system that also fosters learning for those who choose not to pursue university degrees.

"We need to look at the fact that every child is not going to a four-year institution," said DuPree. "The reason I say this is because of the majority of institutions, only 50 percent of those entered graduate. HBCU's, only 40 percent of those graduate. There's something wrong with the system from early childhood development to the four-year."

DuPree said, "In special education, they have what's called an IEP, Individual Education Program for that child. Every child needs to have an IEP. Every child needs to have a program that is designed for that child."

Bill Luckett is a Clarksdale businessman and Democrat. He said Mississippi has to start the education process sooner.

"I'm fully convinced we need to start with early childhood education from a publicly or state supported basis," said Luckett. "We've got to continue that momentum right on through to the college level. We can do this. We're the only state in the South not offering publicly supported early childhood education."

Luckett said the state cannot fix education woes without looking at underlying social problems like the high dropout and teen pregnancy rates.

"We need to teach parents how to put a value on education. When people value something, they want it," Luckett said. "If we can get a lot of the young moms, especially the single-parent families to realize how important it is for their children to get a quality education, that's the first step towards getting us all there."

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