Minnesota 2020 Journal: Mississippi’s Governor Said What?
Retreat is not a solution. Fewer, lesser investments yield lower returns whether in education or in business. Slashing a budget may save money but it doesn’t increase outputs. Ten years of conservative public policy teaches Minnesotans what we’ve known all along, that less doesn’t produce more, just less. Yet, conservatives stubbornly refuse to change direction.
I’ve puzzled this paradox for years. I was skeptical when then-Governor Tim Pawlenty convinced Minnesota’s legislature to embrace sweeping policy change in 2003. I was skeptical when the legislature kept doubling down on “no new taxes”-style conservative policy initiatives, simultaneously compelling direct community service cuts and skyrocketing property tax increases. And now, listening to conservatives resist policy reversal, suggesting that the sky is falling, I’m still skeptical.
But, earlier this week, I gleaned insight from Mississippi’s deeply conservative Governor Phil Bryant. I think that I may finally have a handle on this conservative policy thinking. It’s a powerful disregard for reality paired with desire to engineer a nonexistent, mythic past, all to create fiscal policy that favors the very highest income earners. If conservative policymakers were Renaissance festival re-enactors, dressing up as knights, rat catchers and drunken peasants, this would be entertaining. Instead, it’s alarming.
Capitol to capitol, Mississippi is a thousand miles south of Minnesota. While we share a Mississippi River connection, the State of Mississippi is, in many respects, a hundred years distant. Consequently, it clicked when I heard Governor Bryant assert that the quality of education in the U.S. began declining when mothers started working outside the home.
Yes, he really said that. And, he said it under surprising circumstances, participating in a national education forum in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Washington Post. He wasn’t speaking to a like-minded group of constituents back in Mississippi beyond the national media’s attention.
Immediately sensing that he’d stumbled, Bryant said that he wasn’t trying to blame working women for the nation’s education challenges. His remarks set off a brief firestorm both nationally and back home. Although it’s tempting to dismissively crack a backwards Mississippi joke, Bryant touched a very complicated nerve. This isn’t just about a conservative governor inserting his foot into his mouth.
First, consider that question posed to Bryant and the other bipartisan education panel members. How, the moderator asked, did America become so mediocre in education results? This is stock conservative rant template stuff. The question asserts a conservative frame—American education is mediocre—without data or even context, waxing the path to an equally conservatively framed answer.
Conservative education activists want us to believe that public schools are failing. The 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, better known as “No Child Left Behind,” created rising standardized test achievement requirements. By 2014, every student in every school in every school district must pass this exam. A single testing failure condemns the entire district to failed status. The White House, by administrative fiat but with Congress’ tacit support, terminated this requirement by issuing state waivers. NCLB remains a disaster, just an unimplemented disaster.
When the panel moderator asserted US education mediocrity, it opened a door for the easy, conservative-framed answer. Bryant’s slightly off-script answer revealed the fly in the conservative policy ointment. Bland-if-politically-charged answers don’t address families’ fundamental reality. What sounds good and what’s really going on are two different things.
In Mississippi, as in Minnesota, most women work. Most women in two adults with children households work. Blaming women for educational shortcomings makes about as much sense as blaming men for not bearing children. The criticism misses an objective reality. Families are stronger, communities are better and states are more successful when everyone succeeds. Women still earn less than their male counterparts in similar jobs, translating into reduced family well-being and lower economic growth.
Improving educational outcomes requires investment, not ideologically-sparked criticism. In 2012, the State of Minnesota is spent 13% fewer inflation-adjusted dollars per pupil on public K-12 education than it spent in 2003. Add the NCLB requirements and creating a public perception of public school failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Conservative public policy resists investing in people. Spending cuts and lowered taxes are a good deal for very wealthy people but horrible for the rest of us. Retreating from strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust infrastructure and job growth creates a downward spiral. Mississippi reminds us of what happens when public policy advantages a few. Minnesota mustn’t retreat. We must invest in families and communities.