When the now late Republican Gov. Daniel Kirkwood Fordice appointed a young legislator from Ranzkin County to the position of State Auditor in 1996, not many people outside the political confines of the Capitol or perhaps his House district knew him. This week, Dewey Phillip Bryant closed out his final of two terms as Mississippi’s 64th governor.

When he took office as Governor in January 2012, Bryant, a lifelong Mississippian, inherited the same state the rest of us knew, a place full of good people and promise and rich culture yet struggling to regain footing from the recession.


We’ve long been a state struggling to get off the bottom of any number of nationwide rankings and to prove our worth in the hearts and minds of people outside — and to a degree even within — our borders. Thanks in part to Bryant’s leadership and the people around him, we are in good shape after 16 consecutive years of GOP leadership.

Before being elected Governor, Bryant was the 31st Lieutenant Governor from 2008 to 2012 and 40th State Auditor from 1996 to 2008.

As Governor, Bryant claimed the theme “Rising Together” for his first inauguration and first term in office, and while it’s easy to dismiss that notion as a feel-good PR platitude, examination of his administration’s priorities reveals a genuine dedication to improving the state and the breadth of opportunity for its residents in meaningful, lasting ways.

Unemployment has reached sustained historic lows under Bryant’s leadership, saving the state nearly $70 million in unemployment claims during his two terms as governor. There are more and better jobs for Mississippians. More doctors are being trained to serve in more communities, particularly rural, underserved areas. More children are transitioning from foster care to permanent homes, and adoptions have doubled.

The teen pregnancy rate — something Bryant addressed squarely and unflinchingly — has fallen by more than 41 percent on his watch. He has been unapologetic in his protection of unborn children, his safeguarding of religious liberty, and his defense of the Second Amendment.

He’s signed more than 50 tax cuts into law, including the elimination of a personal income tax bracket for everyday Mississippians, and has still seen state revenue collections grow — including corporate tax collections born of a strengthening economy.

The unquestionable tip of the spear, though, is Bryant’s work in public education.

For decades, Mississippi schools were at nearly the bottom of every good ranking and near the top of every negative one. In the same time period, Democrats, who had controlled the state tightly for generations, claimed the banner of education advocacy only for themselves, sounding the battle cry of funding while funneling money to well-stuffed consultants and simultaneously maligning Republicans as actively despising teachers, schoolchildren, puppies, and progress in all forms.

Facing decades of lagging school progress and Democrats’ handwringing over what, if anything meaningful, to do to improve things, Phil Bryant did exactly what no other politician had done. He and his team considered public education policy through a lens that included more facets than just allotment of the majority of Mississippi’s budget. They followed the data and understood while schools must have appropriate funding to do their work, not only was money not the sole factor, it arguably wasn’t even the most important. Research proved Mississippi students needed two things above all others: quality teachers and the ability to read.

Early in the administration, Bryant’s Policy Director Lucien Smith presented the Governor with a sweeping, data-supported package of education reforms for consideration. The program hit the entire public education spectrum, including early childhood, K-12, and college-level improvements. The plan, dubbed “Education Works” once translated into actual bills, was big. And it was politically unpopular. Democrats hated it by default, and more than a few Republicans defectors were beholden to local superintendents who seemed staunchly opposed to anything besides the status quo.

By the wailing and gnashing of teeth at the Capitol, you’d have thought Bryant wanted public schools to shutter. But what he wanted was substantive improvements in the areas he knew would produce results. He wanted teachers graduating university programs to be better prepared; he wanted teachers to be paid more and for more teachers to be supported in achieving National Board Certification; he wanted kids with special needs and dyslexia to be in schools that best met their needs; he wanted kids bound by address to a failing school to have another option; he wanted the graduation rate up; and he wanted Mississippi third graders actually reading before moving to fourth grade.

While William Winter and “The Boys of Spring” no doubt accomplished a lot in the 1980s, what Bryant did will make more and longer-lasting improvements, and in fact already is, particularly in reading.

In the eight years preceding Bryant, Gov. Haley R. Barbour had made jobs creation his mission by overhauling workforce training, brought stability and predictability to our legal system through tort reform, created an energy policy based on ensuring affordability and availability and insisted on state budgets that were about government living within its means.

Under Bryant, our high school graduation rate is at an historic high and the dropout rate at an historic low. Teacher pay is up by more than $170 million. Mississippi is fourth in the nation for number of teachers who’ve earned National Board Certification. The vast majority of last year’s third graders — 85 percent — left their school year reading on level, well prepared for fourth grade and years of learning to come.

And for the first time ever, Mississippi is at the top of the good lists in education. The most recent national rankings place Mississippi fourth graders as No. 1 in the country for gains in reading and math and our eighth graders as third for gains in math. Last year, Mississippi was the only state in the nation to demonstrate improvements in reading scores. We are leading, and our students are winning.

This is the foundation of “Rising Together” that Gov. Bryant envisioned when he became governor. It’s what will create the next workforce and sustain and expand economic development efforts. It’s what will put more Mississippians to work in better-paying jobs to raise families and fuel the economy. It’s what will put more children on the path to better outcomes instead of the path to incarceration and dependence on public welfare programs. It’s what will drive innovation and success and give rise to the next generation of leaders who can consider and address Mississippi’s successes and challenges.

Phil Bryant has served Mississippi well. He has believed the people were owed function and performance by their government. He has believed their liberty and their money to be theirs, not his.

He has believed political capital was worth burning to produce results. He has believed Mississippi would be better because he intended it to be, and he was battle-tested enough to dig in where he should and compromise when needed if it meant moving the ball down the field.

In this way, he’s not only left real policy improvements but hopefully also given the next generation of leaders something to model and chart a course. Mississippi is better off because of Phil and Deborah Bryant. We owe them and those who served with them a debt of gratitude.