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Alliance President Bob Wise on the death of former West Virginia Governor Hulett Smith

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January 26, 2012 06:19 pm


This week West Virginians are mourning the death of former Governor Hulett Smith, who died last week at 93. As I listened to President Obama’s education proposals in the 2012 State of the Union speech, I thought of Governor Smith’s education initiatives during his term from 1965-69. he was an early advocate of early childhood development as well as easing access to college.

One of his most forward thinking efforts was to provide the first two years of college free to any eligible student. He never achieved this legislative goal, but he urged it throughout his life. I recall meeting several times in 2000-2001 where he pressed for extending the length of public education for students.

Where would we be today, not only in West Virginia, but nationally, if this had become policy? Just like the GI Bill provided opportunities for millions of returning WWII soldiers–and fueled the greatest economic surge in the country’s history–so could Governor Smith’s dream have continued that progress. When he proposed this measure, three-quarters of all jobs were held by persons with a high school diploma or less. Today 60 percent of jobs require some postsecondary education.

West Virginia during the 1960’s was largely dependent upon the coal industry, but a new wave of technology was coming to the mines, meaning less miners working and a higher skill level for those remaining. Governor Smith saw this trend, and also recognized that the state’s economy was rapidly changing and future job creation depended upon new and different industries with a common requirement–much higher skill levels and education attainment.

Sound familiar? Flash forward to today. Rapidly rising skill levels. A large population of low-income students. Their economic future as well as the nation’s depends upon all students having the opportunity to readily advance beyond high school.

The economic data is rapidly piling up to make this point. Most recently the Alliance showed the significant economic gains to the nation by moving high school dropouts to graduation and then to the postsecondary achievement goals set by the Obama administration.

In an economically struggling state almost 50 years ago, a courageous governor recognized the need to open the doors to postsecondary education for every student. West Virginia progressed because of his successful efforts to improve education in several areas. Today our nation must strive to achieve his commitment of truly making postsecondary education available to all students.

Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.


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