Updates from across Mississippi and beyond for the week of February 13th. Grab a cup of coffee, sink back in your chair, and enjoy.
Mississippi’s Unsung Education Story
In 2015, the chief argument posed against conservative leaders in Mississippi centered on education. A ballot measure that looked to take away the Legislature’s authority to make education policy decisions, Initiative 42, was at the heart of the 2015 election cycle. Special interest groups with grassroots-y names like “Fed Up with 50” and “The Parents’ Campaign” dominated news coverage.
Fast forward nearly a decade and the air seems to have gone out of that particular balloon. It’s not a central part of the “bring down conservatives” bingo card anymore. But why? The answer appears to be unprecedented investment in education and considerable performance gains generated off the back of policies like the 3rd grade reading gate.
Mississippi experienced a 10.3 percent drop in the number of students enrolled in public education between 2015 and present. In that same period, it experienced a nearly 20 percent increase in state support for public. These two factors combined, the decrease in students and the increase in funding, mean that state support per student has increased nearly 33 percent. Importantly, there is considerable additional dollars spent at the local level on education. A PEER report that looked at 2020 education funding, put the average district funding level over $4,000 per student. That number has undoubtedly increased, particularly when you factor in a whopping $2.27 billion in COVID-era relief funds that went directly to districts.
Mississippi’s gains are not limited to the size of its investment, though. The state’s graduation rate now exceeds the national average. We have experienced some of the highest gains in national testing of any state in the country. Our state’s literacy program has become a heralded model for other states. Certainly, much work remains to continue improving our education system, but the gains are real and reflected in the way that others are assessing our system. Mississippi was once perennially ranked 50th in education. The latest U.S. News & World Report rankings put our K-12 system at 43rd. It’s not an insubstantial move in a short period of time.
Up in the Air, Down on the Ground
Speaking of letting the air out of balloons, the great China balloon debacle of 2023 has intensified efforts to protect U.S. national security interest from what is seen as a growing threat. One of the ways this is manifesting itself is in calls to prevent Chinese companies or citizens from buying farmland in America, including through proposed legislation in Mississippi.
How big is the problem of foreign ownership of farmland? Well, foreign citizens and businesses held a total of 3.1 percent of U.S. farmland in the USDA’s latest report to Congress in January of this year. The largest block of foreign owners hail from five countries: Canada, Netherlands, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany. Combined, these owners possess over 62 percent of all foreign owned farmland. Other larger holders include citizens or businesses from Portugal, France, Denmark, Luxembourg, Mexico, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, Japan, and Belgium.
Chinese nationals own less U.S. farmland than citizens or businesses from each of these countries. In total, Chinese ownership accounts for 0.9 percent of the 3.1 percent of farmland owned by foreign nationals. Now, the mere fact that Chinese citizens or businesses own such a miniscule fraction of land does not mean that they should be permitted to do so, but it does put the perceived problem in context.
It’s also worth mentioning how we balance national security objectives with property rights. A restriction on foreign purchase of land is not only a restriction on the buyer. It effectively means that a Mississippian is being told that they cannot sell their property to whomever they want. It probably also bears considering how these sorts of restrictions might impact a complex global trade market. The U.S. exports over $177 billion in agriculture every year. China is a huge buyer of our food.
Presidents’ Day is Upon Us
Monday is Presidents’ Day. Banks will be closed. People will be lazy (that’s okay every once in a while). The day was originally intended as a celebration of George Washington, but overtime became a celebration of all U.S. presidents. I figured I would use the moment to highlight one of the most fascinating presidents that does not draw much fanfare: Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was Reagan before Reagan was Reagan.
He had a very serious commitment to the idea that government, particularly the federal government, had a limited role to play in the affairs of citizens. In addition to this “constitutional conservatism,” Coolidge practiced conservatism in his demeanor. He was a man of few words, a fact which earned him the nickname “Silent Cal.” One famous story involved a dinner guest telling Coolidge that he had bet someone he could get more than three words out of the president. Coolidge’s alleged retort: “you lose.”
This excerpt from Coolidge’s biography is courtesy of the White House Historical Association:
At 2:30 on the morning of August 3, 1923, while visiting in Vermont, Calvin Coolidge received word that he was President. By the light of a kerosene lamp, his father, who was a notary public, administered the oath of office as Coolidge placed his hand on the family Bible.
Coolidge was “distinguished for character more than for heroic achievement,” wrote a Democratic admirer, Alfred E. Smith. “His great task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history … in a time of extravagance and waste….”
Born in Plymouth, Vermont, on July 4, 1872, Coolidge was the son of a village storekeeper. He was graduated from Amherst College with honors, and entered law and politics in Northampton, Massachusetts. Slowly, methodically, he went up the political ladder from councilman in Northampton to Governor of Massachusetts, as a Republican. En route he became thoroughly conservative.
As President, Coolidge demonstrated his determination to preserve the old moral and economic precepts amid the material prosperity which many Americans were enjoying. He refused to use Federal economic power to check the growing boom or to ameliorate the depressed condition of agriculture and certain industries. His first message to Congress in December 1923 called for isolation in foreign policy, and for tax cuts, economy, and limited aid to farmers.
He rapidly became popular. In 1924, as the beneficiary of what was becoming known as “Coolidge prosperity,” he polled more than 54 percent of the popular vote.
In his Inaugural he asserted that the country had achieved “a state of contentment seldom before seen,” and pledged himself to maintain the status quo. In subsequent years he twice vetoed farm relief bills, and killed a plan to produce cheap Federal electric power on the Tennessee River.
The political genius of President Coolidge, Walter Lippmann pointed out in 1926, was his talent for effectively doing nothing: “This active inactivity suits the mood and certain of the needs of the country admirably. It suits all the business interests which want to be let alone…. And it suits all those who have become convinced that government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy….”
Coolidge was both the most negative and remote of Presidents, and the most accessible. He once explained to Bernard Baruch why he often sat silently through interviews: “Well, Baruch, many times I say only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to people. Even that is too much. It winds them up for twenty minutes more.”
But no President was kinder in permitting himself to be photographed in Indian war bonnets or cowboy dress, and in greeting a variety of delegations to the White House.
Both his dry Yankee wit and his frugality with words became legendary. His wife, Grace Goodhue Coolidge, recounted that a young woman sitting next to Coolidge at a dinner party confided to him she had bet she could get at least three words of conversation from him. Without looking at her he quietly retorted, “You lose.” And in 1928, while vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, he issued the most famous of his laconic statements, “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.”
By the time the disaster of the Great Depression hit the country, Coolidge was in retirement. Before his death in January 1933, he confided to an old friend, “. . . I feel I no longer fit in with these times.”