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Guest editorial: Gov. Shumlin faces key decision on education

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Posted on November 19, 2012 |
By Emerson Lynn



To Mr. Shumlin:

If we could add 25 million post-secondary educated students to the workforce by 2025, the boost to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product would be $500 billion annually, according to a Georgetown University study.

If you do the math, Vermont’s tiny sliver of that increase would be roughly a billion dollars annually and that billion dollars translates directly to the economic and cultural security we need to pursue for the next generation of Vermonters. 

Whether or not we succeed will depend on the steps we take today, and the first of those steps lies with Gov. Peter Shumlin and how he proceeds with his selection of the new Commissioner of Education. 

Here is the challenge: In Vermont we look at education as a high school diploma. We have an entire educational structure built around that preK-12 classroom experience. And we do well. We rank among the nation’s best in terms of the percentage of our high school students that gets that diploma. We also pay more, on a per capita basis, than almost anyone else for that distinction.

But from the high school diploma forward, we fail. We rank almost dead last in the percentage of our high school students that enroll in post-secondary classes the following fall. We’re 47th.

If this continues, we have consigned a huge percentage of our student population to a life of economic insecurity. According to national statistics, the earning power of a high school graduate peaked in 1974. For 38 years, that worker has seen his or her inflation-adjusted wages decline in terms of purchasing power. That’s also a measure of how little this cohort contributes to an economy that is rapidly changing in nature.

In other words, a high school diploma is no longer a meaningful mark of success.  Even traditional manufacturing jobs increasingly require an education beyond what high schools offer. 

A high school diploma is a mid-point. Nothing else.

If the stage has changed for students, it’s also changed for the people leading them. That’s why it’s critical for the new Commissioner of Education to be fluent at all levels of the educational spectrum. This isn’t a preK-12 position, it’s preK-16. The person selected should have the same respect from post-secondary educators as he or she would from the preK-12 educators. That person should be as comfortable talking to UVM’s Tom Sullivan and Vermont State College’s Tim Donovan, as he is a high school principal or superintendent.

It’s only through this change in focus that Vermont can begin to produce a workforce capable of dealing with tomorrow’s needs. We will need to explore dual enrollment opportunities that allow high school students to get credit for college level work. The objective, for some, will be a three-year college degree. We will need to explore the advantages of online learning, which could result in a more efficient allocation of labor. We must figure out how we can use our excess physical capacity to expand our preK ages to as young as perhaps two. And we have a dramatic need to address those who perform poorly in school, understanding that if we can meet their needs and help them excel, that we have succeeded on numerous fronts, and that the effort could save us more money than it would ever cost to do.

The person selected will need to be able to break through the educational silos that, to date, prevent such discussions.

This requires a vision that extends past what we have asked of our educational establishment. That’s no one’s fault. Most states are in the same situation. The marketplace is changing that fast and our educational systems have not been asked to keep pace.

But Vermont has three advantages no other state has:

• We put our money where our mouths are. We’re at the top of the list in terms of what we spend on our schools. That gives us the breathing room necessary to reallocate our resources. We don’t have to ask for more, other states do. But we need to be broader in our consideration of whose money is whose. 

• We have the nation’s lowest teacher-pupil ratio. Again, this gives us the flexibility to be more nimble. We can use technology to its fullest advantage, and use teachers to “add value.” This ability will be particularly notable as the system sees a huge percentage of teachers reach retirement age.

• We have a post-secondary educational community – UVM, etc.,- that is the state’s second largest economic sector. We have more colleges on a per capita basis that almost any other state. This is a reflection of the commitment we have to education and our ability to be recognized as the education state.

As the governor ponders his choice he should ask if the candidates before him have the gravitas to get accomplished what we need accomplished. If he has the slightest doubt, he should send the list back. 

The choice is too important to settle for less than the very best.

by Emerson Lynn/St. Albans Messenger

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