JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Mississippi's governor said Tuesday that the quality of education in the U.S. began declining when mothers started working outside the home, though he added later that he was not trying to blame working women for education problems.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant made his initial remarks Tuesday in Washington during an education forum hosted by The Washington Post. He elaborated on them later in an interview with The Associated Press.
The newspaper reported (http://wapo.st/134DYMc) that Bryant and two other governors on the bipartisan panel were asked how America became "so mediocre" in education results.
Bryant responded: "Both parents started working, and the mom is in the work place. That's not a bad thing. I'm going to get in trouble. I can just see — I can see the emails tomorrow. But now, both parents are working. They're pursuing careers. It's a great American story now — that women are in the work place."
The moderator asked if it was the mother's place to teach children to read.
Bryant said: "No, no, no. But I think there was that loving, nurturing opportunity — that both parents had a little bit of time."
In a phone interview with the AP later Tuesday, Bryant said having both parents working outside the home puts pressure on families, which in turn affects education.
"We're so busy in today's society," Bryant said. "Moms are working. Dads are working."
Bryant's wife, Deborah, has worked outside the home for more than 38 years, including while their two children were growing up.
"Anybody that thinks I would blame working mothers for failures in education is just ridiculous," the governor told the AP.
Bryant's father was a diesel mechanic. When Bryant and his two brothers were growing up, their mother occasionally worked as a grocery store cashier and in a bakery to earn money when the family needed it, the governor told the AP.
The Washington Post forum focused on ensuring children can read well by the time they finish third grade — a focus of Bryant's during the 2013 legislative session. He signed a law requiring children who are having trouble reading in early grades to receive intense instruction. Those who can't read at a basic level by the end of third grade are supposed to be held back, starting at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.
Democratic state Sen. Deborah Dawkins of Pass Christian, who worked as a physician's assistant while raising three children, criticized Bryant's remarks about working mothers. Dawkins, a frequent critic of Bryant, said the governor seems to have little idea about the problems parents face in finding quality, affordable day care, particularly in one of the poorest states in the nation.
"He is so out of touch with the real world," Dawkins said. "He surrounds himself with tea party people who want to home-school their children."
Janis Lane, president of the Central Mississippi Tea Party, is a Bryant supporter who worked 37 years for a telecommunications company, including when she and her husband were raising two sons. She said she believes Bryant meant nothing derogatory.
"I think when both parents are working outside the home, it does pull some of the focus off of home life," Lane said. "You can build your whole life around your children and still work outside the home. I'm proof of that."
The Mississippi chapter of the National Organization for Women said Bryant's statement "disregards the impact of racism and integration in the decline of Mississippi's historically underfunded schools." The group also said Bryant is out of touch with the economic reality of people in the state.
"Even if women are not economically forced to work, we have the right to make a career without being made scapegoats by state officials who are not doing all they can to create great schools," Mississippi NOW said in a news release.
Mississippi Democratic Party chairman Rickey Cole called Bryant "the goofiest governor in America." Cole said throughout Mississippi's 200-year history, most mothers have had to work to earn money for their families.
"Whether that work took place in the fields, in the logwoods, as domestic workers, as teachers, as nurses, as factory workers, in food service, in retail or in many other fields of arduous work, the mothers of Mississippi have been bringing home the bacon since Mississippi began," Cole said in a statement. "The 1950s 'Father Knows Best,' picket fence, middle-class family myth has never been an option for most Mississippians."
Mississippi Republican Party chairman Joe Nosef said Bryant was being unfairly criticized by "liberal news outlets."
"He would never be critical of anyone for working and having a career — men or women," Nosef said. "The governor was simply pointing out the positive impact parents can have on the education of their children."
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus