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Getting The Education Car Out Of The Ditch

Op-ed:

Getting The Education Car Out Of The Ditch

By Gov. Bob Wise

With 2009 comes a new president, a new Congress, unprecedented challenges, and…the opportunity to take the bold steps necessary to transform secondary and postsecondary education so that the United States truly becomes an education society.

Reflecting the New Year’s spirit, I am also beginning, with this posting, an occasional commentary that is somewhere between a blog and a column, these are my personal thoughts about education and what must be done to achieve true reform. While I welcome thoughts, criticisms, and suggestions, I am currently unable to conduct running exchanges. What I can do is occasionally note significant observations, pro and con, from those of you who respond to these commentaries.

Now that I have introduced my New Year’s effort, let’s jump into some assumptions that I will be exploring in upcoming commentaries.

I believe that 2009 will launch another major phase in the evolution of the federal role in education. What that expanded role will look like is still uncertain; that the federal government will see education as even more of a responsibility is inevitable. Important forces have converged. The equity imperative that all children have a quality education joins with the national economic imperative that demands a quality workforce.

At the same time, the major budget shortfalls confronting the vast majority of the states undermine state and local education reform aspirations. When demands for vastly improved student outcomes are rising, only the federal government is able to provide coordination and financial resources.

The type and scope of the federal role is critically important. One size does not fit all. Certainly, many school districts and states already are pushing fruitful and aggressive reform. The first rule for the federal involvement is to “do no harm.”  The second is to identify the strategic role that the federal government should play.

There are strong reasons for the people who care about education reform to be pessimistic. The overwhelming economic crises, rising shortfalls for state and local governments, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and health care seem to eclipse education as priorities. Most current versions of an economic stimulus package highlight infrastructure construction, middle-class tax cuts, and unemployment benefit extensions—with attention to education being largely limited to school construction and renovation and short-term, block-grant-style  assistance to states.

So why am I optimistic? Because I have learned that often the greatest political and legislative change comes only when we are faced with the greatest adversity. When the “car is deep in the ditch,” everyone needs to jump in to push it out. No one has the luxury of holding back because of preexisting beliefs.

Today, we can all agree that the nation’s—indeed, the world’s—economic car is deeply mired. Any economic recovery package, whether short or long term, must involve education. The industrial era has been replaced by the information age; a nation which used to have a strong emphasis on manufacturing now runs on a service- and knowledge-oriented economy. Even the high-paying manufacturing, construction, and other blue-collar jobs of the past decades now require some postsecondary education.

Recent events make me even more optimistic about beginning a new era of education reform in 2009. President-elect Obama has repeatedly stressed the clear link between education and the economy. The secretary-designate of the U.S. Department of Education, Arne Duncan, comes from leading a large urban school system and showing improvements in student outcomes. Other nominations and names being circulated reinforce the merger of the equity and the economics imperatives for improving education. In the U.S. Congress, the Democratic and Republican leaders have spent the last several years preparing for the next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the many issues that must be confronted.

Great adversity. Great opportunity. And many genuine needs and seemingly competing interests. What will determine whether education truly gets pushed out of the ditch is effective advocacy—strategic, immediate, and connected to the other critical economic issues. And that is where we’ll pick up next time.

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