By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON — The two candidates for Mississippi governor agree on a couple of points about education. Both say publicly and frequently that money is not the solution to all problems, and both talk about expanding vocational courses to help high school students who aren’t university-bound.
In many other ways, Democrat Johnny DuPree and Republican Phil Bryant offer different ideas about how to increase academic performance in elementary and secondary schools.
DuPree, the third-term mayor of Hattiesburg, says he wants to try to decrease the dropout rate by putting graduation coaches in middle schools and high schools — people who could help keep students on track to earn diplomas. DuPree also proposes strengthening gifted programs. And, with Mississippi near the bottom in the nation for teacher pay, he says the state should give income tax breaks to public school teachers.
“If they’re the professionals that we say they are, and we expect them to be the professionals that we expect them to be, then we need to treat them like that,” DuPree said this past week during a campaign appearance in Jackson. “We need to tell our teachers they’re special. They’re special. Do something special for our teachers. It’s not a whole lot.”
Bryant, the first-term lieutenant governor, previously served as state auditor and state representative from Rankin County. He proposes charter schools as the centerpiece his education platform. Charter schools receive state and federal funding but operate independently of many state regulations, with the ability to set different operating hours, for example, or to try different approaches to academics.
“Look, I’d like to offer every public school that opportunity,” Bryant said in June at a Mississippi Press Association candidates’ forum. “I’d like to say, look, if you’d want to stay open and teach five-and-a-half days a week, if you want to be able to fire a bad teacher without retribution and you have a criteria that you can follow, you can get rid of those.”
Bryant and DuPree are on the Nov. 8 ballot, competing to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.
When the new governor takes office in January, he’ll inherit a familiar set of budget challenges that affect public schools. State economist Darrin Webb estimates Mississippi’s economy will grow only seven-tenths of 1 percent this year and about 1.7 percent in 2012. That means Mississippi tax collections will continue to be modest and money will continue to be tight.
State agency leaders appeared in September before legislative budget writers, who are starting to plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Education officials requested a 13 percent spending increase for elementary and secondary schools, even while acknowledging that they’re unlikely to get that much more money.
In campaign appearances, both gubernatorial candidates talk about growing up in modest economic circumstances and say education has helped them meet their goals.
Bryant, son of a diesel mechanic and a homemaker, spent part of his childhood in the small Delta town of Moorhead before his family moved to the Jackson area. He graduated in 1973 from McCluer High School in Jackson, then earned his undergraduate degree in criminal justice from the University of Southern Mississippi. He later earned a master’s degree in political science from Mississippi College.
DuPree, son of a single mother who was a domestic worker, graduated in 1972 from what is now Hattiesburg High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in political science from the University of Southern Mississippi and a doctorate in urban higher education from Jackson State University.
DuPree, 57, and Bryant, 56, have two grown children each, and all four attended public schools.