Gov. Phil Bryant delivered his eighth and final State of the State in which he touted what he described as accomplishments during his tenure in improving education, growing the state’s economy and adding jobs.
Mississippi Today fact checked the governor’s speech and provided context for several of his claims.
Bryant claim: “Our gratitude to these classroom heroes and the essential value of public education are why we passed a $100 million teacher pay raise in 2014 and why I now call on the members of this body to join me in giving teachers their second pay raise in five years. Send me a bill to authorize a pay raise for these most critical guardians of Mississippi’s future, and I will sign it.”
Fact check: Gov. Bryant signed a bill raising teacher salaries in 2014, giving teachers a $2,500 pay raise that cost the state about $100 million in total. Bryant also signed into law a separate measure that rewards teachers in districts that score an A or B on the state’s grading scale or improve a letter grade. Still, Mississippi teachers remain among the lowest paid in the nation with an average salary of $44,926 in the 2017-18 school year, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.
Bryant: “At the beginning of this administration, we knew equipping teachers with outstanding training would create historic results for students. That is why we have supported teachers to achieve National Board Certification. We now have nearly 4,200 National Board Certified Teachers, who earn an additional $6,000 per year as a result of this certification. Our support has placed Mississippi fourth in the nation for the number of National Board Certified Teachers.”
Fact check: In 2018, data show that 4,166 Mississippi teachers earned National Board Certification. That year, Mississippi ranked seventh in the nation not fourth as Bryant said in the speech.
Bryant: “In the last testing cycle, 93 percent of Mississippi’s third graders were reading proficiently. I believe that time and results will record your passage of this act as the single most successful reform to public education in Mississippi history.”
Fact check: 93 percent of third graders were reading, but not all were reading proficiently. In June, the Mississippi Department of Education announced 93.2 percent of third graders passed the Mississippi Assessment Program English Language Arts test on the first try. While this is a 1.2 percent improvement from the previous year, a change in the way students will be measured this year may cause this percentage to dip.
To pass last year, students needed only to score higher than the lowest two (out of five) levels of achievement. Students can earn either a minimal (1), basic (2), pass (3), proficient (4) or advanced (5).
MDE will require students meet at least a level three to pass in the 2018-19 school year. Only about 74 percent of students scored at a level three or higher, and just 44.7 percent scored at the top two levels. State Superintendent Carey Wright has called level two a low bar in years past.
Bryant: We now have a more robust system of education opportunities for all Mississippi children including: public charter schools, dyslexia management programs, advanced distance learning, and now even a special needs scholarship program serving the most vulnerable of our children.
Fact check: The Legislature passed the “The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act,” in 2015, which established a program for students with special needs to receive $6,500 per year from the state to attend nonpublic schools.
Advocates of the program say the Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) give families a choice in the type of education that’s best for their children. Critics argue the program drains state funding from the public schools into private schools that are not necessarily equipped to teach students with special needs.
A recently released legislative report shows that while parents say they are satisfied with the program, many private schools do not have the staff on hand to serve students with special needs. The report stated that of the 33 schools surveyed, 11 schools said they had no special-education staff in fiscal year 2018, and 22 schools said they received services from public schools, meaning all 33 schools that responded to the survey were not fully equipped to serve students with special needs.
Jobs, budget and economy
Bryant: “In January of 2012, our state’s unemployment rate was 9.4 percent. In 2017, we broke a record by dropping below 5 percent to the lowest unemployment number ever recorded. Today, it is 4.7 percent.”
Fact check: The November 2018 unemployment rate of 4.7 percent is tied for the lowest ever recorded in state history. But 46 states reported lower unemployment rates, making Mississippi’s jobless rate among the nation’s highest.
But Mississippi has lagged most other states in terms of recovery from the so-called Great Recession that hit in 2008. For instance, the number of people with jobs did not surpass the pre-recession level until earlier this year when the state’s job total hit 1.1 million. Employment has continued to climb in most months since then and was at 1.2 million for August, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The gross domestic product (GDP) of the nation and of the region has been much stronger than that of Mississippi. State Economist Darrin Webb said that between 2009, “the bottom of the recession,” and 2016, the state economy grew 1.7 percent compared to 15.9 percent nationally. The state’s job growth, Webb said, was 5.3 percent, compared to 11.8 percent nationally.
Webb said that at the end of 2017 the state had experienced six consecutive quarters of growth in the GDP for the first time since 2011. That growth has continued in 2018. The GDP, which is viewed as an economic indicator, is the value of all goods and services produced in a period of time.
Bryant: “Your support in job creation and business expansion has been fruitful and has a clear and definable return on investment. In the past seven years, (Mississippi Development Authority) has helped create 35,000 new jobs and attracted more than $7 billion of private investment to Mississippi.”
Fact check: As new job creation has increased significantly during Bryant’s two terms in office, due in large part to Republican leaders’ large tax incentive deals and corporate tax cuts, about 45,000 employers across the state are looking to fill jobs, according to the Mississippi Development Authority’s website.
Bryant: I can report to you tonight that CPS is making great progress.
Fact check: The agency’s progress is difficult to quantify. The number of children in Mississippi’s foster-care system has dropped in the last year and a half, from 6,100 to 4,900. Meanwhile, adoptions also doubled between fiscal-year 2017 and 2018, from 302 to 647. But the agency is still struggling to comply with the terms of the Olivia Y lawsuit that has dragged on since 2004. Recent compliance numbers show that as of September 2018, 54 percent of caseworkers had caseloads larger than the number agreed upon between the agency and the court. Due to these struggles with compliance, last summer the plaintiff’s attorney demanded the governor replace agency head Jess Dickinson. When Bryant refused, the plaintiffs asked a federal judge to appoint an outside receiver to run the agency. On Monday, CPS head Dickinson asked a House Appropriations Committee for more money to hire staff and comply with another term of the agreement: updating the agency’s 25-year-old computer program, which he described as “a black screen with a blinking green cursor.”
Bryant: From the outset, this administration identified the value of healthcare for the wellbeing of Mississippians as well as our economy, and our effort to identify health care as an economic driver continues. Understanding that access to care must be the beginning of any good health care plan.
Fact check: The numbers that Bryant cites—that doctors generate a $2 million economic impact in each community and that the Rural Physicians Scholarships have added nearly 60 doctors to Mississippi by 2020—are accurate. However, access to care remains a big challenge for patients in rural Mississippi. In the last five months, four rural hospitals in the state have declared bankruptcy, and another five have shut their doors since 2010. Nationally studies have linked hospital closures to states’ decisions against expanding Medicaid.
Although Bryant has privately begun looking at ways to roll out Medicaid expansion in Mississippi, he did not mention the program in his state of the state speech on Monday.