Governors craft reform strategy

America’s governors are facing up to some harsh realities: Their states’ schoolchildren are not ready for the 21st century, their workers are not trained for the new jobs created every day, and their businesses are not competing as strongly as they must to keep ahead.

The only way to thrive amid globalization is to change, and states are past due for a sweeping transformation of education, worker training, and economic development, governors agreed Feb. 26 after days of discussions at the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

“The plain fact of the matter is the world has changed,” said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who sought to convince her fellow state leaders that globalization is their problem. “We must have a sense of urgency as governors. … What we’re doing now does not suffice.”

Meetings over four days hammered home her point. School teachers, business leaders, scientists, and pollsters all delivered the same message: Overhaul school curricula, retrain workers, and revamp economic development so that businesses build upon each other, rather than pit one state against another.

The nation’s governors heard from Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway; Robert Rubin, former Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration; President George W. Bush’s top trade negotiator, Susan Schwab, and many others.

“Governors’ jobs are no longer to [chase] smokestacks–now it’s to build vibrant economies, state by state,” said Carl Schramm, president and chief executive of the Kauffman Foundation, which encourages entrepreneurship.

Governors agreed on a framework for change and are hoping to get federal support through legislation in Congress on workforce training, education, and research and development. Among their ideas:

•Refocus on science, technology, engineering, math, and foreign language proficiency. They are seeking programs to encourage students and teachers in those subject areas.

•Make worker training more flexible, coordinate training with regional needs, and make progress measurable.

•Create federal “competitive innovation grants” to encourage states to develop regional hubs that build on existing strengths, such as computer development in North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham area.

Education is the foundation of a 21st-century economy, but state systems don’t come close to delivering what is needed, said William H. Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor who studies education.

In many other industrial countries, by the end of eighth grade students are two years ahead of American students, he said: “That’s why Europeans view the first two years of our university system as basic high school catch-up.”

Schmidt added: “These children, we’re putting them at a disadvantage. This makes it more than an economic issue, it makes it a moral issue.”

One of the speakers was Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz, who told governors they need to engage the public on the need for change but find the right way to talk about it.

“Innovation is about the future,” he said. “This is not about us versus them, us versus the Chinese or Utah versus Alaska. … That’s not how the public views innovation. They see it as everyone wins.”

But he warned that while many Americans see the country as being powerful, they don’t see it as being particularly innovative–and many are worried about how the country will manage the challenges of the future.

Many governors said they recognize the need for change, but making it happen is much more difficult.

“I’m trying to move the economy of Tennessee from a low-skilled, assembly-line approach to a more high-tech approach,” said Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat. “We’re not going to be successful with trade barriers. It’s going to have to be through a very flexible economy and engaging in innovation and change.”


National Governors Association

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