Show Me The Education Money

Across the nation, governors and state legislatures are preparing their budgets and promoting their visions for this new year.  Unfortunately, 2008 is looking like recent years.  Rising obligations for healthcare and criminal justice and roads and virtually everything else.  Concerns about shrinking state coffers, due in part to a slumping housing marketing and concerns for a recession.  And great education reform ideas put pack in the drawer for another year, pining for the money, public support, or community need to move idea into law.

Yes, it is a sad story.  But does it have to be that way?  Is there a way to talk about education this time of year, without it just being tossed into the same ole education bucket again?

If we look at those issues that have a chance of making it into the game — preK, STEM, high school reform, postsecondary access — we are provided an interesting picture.  Yes, they are all education issues.  But each and every one of them can also be positioned as economic development issues.  An investment in one or more of them can have a direct impact on jobs, increased revenues, economic investment, and community empowerment.  And that’s how you move them out of the “great ideas” drawer and onto the text of the State of the State address.

For too long, we’ve talked about education for education’s sake.  PreK is simply about those sweet little kids.  High school reform is to keep teenagers engaged and in class.  Postsecondary access is needed because we’ve sold the nation on the belief that everybody needs to go to college.

But let’s look (and talk about) this a little differently.  We’re already seeing it with STEM education issues.  STEM isn’t just about putting more kids in math and science classes.  It is about preparing all students for 21st century jobs.  It is about making a high school diploma more relevant and more in line with what employers need from their incoming workforce.  It is about global competition and providing work and life skills for all students — not just those going on to teach trig or become doctors or rocket scientists.

This month, we’re sure to hear some talk in state capitols about investment in STEM education.  And we’ll hear it most loudly where K-12, higher ed, and the business community are working together.  Why?  It’s not just an ed issue; it’s an employment issue.  And with employment comes a stronger economy.  And a reduced burden on the state justice and health systems.  An investment in STEM affects all.

The same argument can be made for high school reform, where we are ensuring high school educations are relevant and effectively preparing all students for school career and life.  With postsecondary access, we focus on the ability to enroll in the work certificate programs, community colleges, and four-year institutions that can prepare us for the careers of our dreams.  Even preK, once we key in on the high-quality, results-driven programs, ensures that all young students — even those from the poorest families — develop the tools to access the pathways to those good jobs.

The era of education reform for education’s sake is over.  If state-level reforms are to take hold, we need to focus on return on investment.  Show that a dollar of education today will reap five dollars of increased revenue or three dollars of reduced social services costs tomorrow.  The data’s there.  The interest is there.  We just need to bring it all together.  It may seem silly, but we need to demonstrate it is relevant.

Yes, we need ed reform and we need to articulate why.  And the reason is not increased test scores.  That is merely a measurement to know we are doing our job.  At the end of the day, we reform to improve.  We improve to provide today’s students with a better education, a better job, and a better life than their parents.  It may be clichéd, but it’s the truth.

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