In his State of the State Address last Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed a provocative question: “Success in the new economy depends on an educated worforce with skills beyond high school in science, computer technology, engineering and math. I ask you: Is Vermont prepared to meet this challenge? Are we ready to harness this opportunity so critical to our future prosperity?”
“The plain truth is,” he answered, “we are not.
“Look at the facts: Current estimates show that 62 percent of job openings in the next decade will require post-secondary education. Sixty-two percent. Yet only about 45 percent of Vermont students who begin ninth grade continue their education beyond high school, and that percentage drops as family incomes decline.”
To change that dynamic, the governor recommended action in four areas:
• Put more money in early education:
The governor noted that “90 percent of a child’s brain is developed in the first 36 months of life, while only 4 percent of the nation’s dollars are spent during this critical time.” To right that imbalance, Gov. Shumlin said he would direct $17 million — taken from the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit — to early childhood education, effectively doubling the amount of money the state’s currently contributes to childcare for low-income families. “There is no bigger obstacle to Vermont parents who want to work or advance than the high scost of quality child care, ” the governor said, adding it would be the “largest single investment in early childhood education in the state’s history.”
Importantly, the governor’s plan also included measures to provide “financial support to communities that initiate publicly funded preschool programs where they do not now exist,” including some start-up costs with ongoing support.
While the payout won’t be seen for several years, it is a hugely important initiative that should help encourage more students to do better in school and pursue higher education.
• Feed hungry students so they can focus on learning:
Noting that thousands of Vermont students still attend school hungry, the governor said his budget would include enough funds to make up for the federal short-fall to fund subsidized lunches.
• Make higher education more affordable and accessible for Vermonters:
The governor asked the Legislature to approve two key measures: dual enrollment and early college initiatives. Dual enrollment allows high school studnets to get a head start on gaining expensive college credits by enrolling in for-credit college courses while they are in high school. That is allowed in very limited circumstances today. The governor proposed doubling the spending.
Other early college initiatives called for encouraging more students to simultaneously complete their senior year in high school with their first year in college — thus saving the student up to 25 percent of the cost of a four-year college degree. The governor said this should be opened to all Vermont high school seniors, with the money following the student.
To further help Vermont students pay for their college education, the governor proposed a plan to pay for their senior year in college if they attend a Vermont college, and if they remain in the state for at least three or five years afterwards, depending on the degree (see full text of the governor’s address on Pages 20-21-22.) In lauding the state college system and UVM, he announced he would increase the state’s appropriation for the Vermont State Colleges, VSAC and UVM by 3 percent — the first such increase in the past few years.
• Focus education on career readiness:
The governor’s fourth point was to put more effort on education training. He suggested the development of Personal Learning Plans that followed the student from grade school through college, making school more relevant to a student’s career path. He also suggested a mandate that all Vermont ninth graders take algebra and all tenth-graders take geometry, and he suggested that the state’s 17 career and tech centers become “the foundations for Vermont Innovation Zones” matching the needs of area employers.
Perhaps most importantly, the governor set the stage for a discussion on how money will follow the student in high school and beyond. When the governor calls for more opportunities for high school seniors to take college classes and to simultaneously complete the senior year in high school and first year in college, he means for some of that funding currently going to the high school to be shared with the higher ed institution. It’s a bold idea that is an essential part of the mix, if college costs for Vermont students are to be reduced in significant ways, thus allowing Vermont’s students to pursue the training and education needed to get those higher paying jobs.
It was a stirring speech not only for what it proposed, but because he established a new plateau on which education will now be discussed. By avoiding the pitfalls of past conversations — Act 60 and school funding, test scores and the controversy around testing, and an emphasis on consolidation — he was able to focus on results the state must strive to achieve and lay out a road map to get there. That’s the mark of leadership.
Angelo S. Lynn