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Douglas: Education Initiatives

01/24/13 5:55PM By Jim Douglas
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(Host) Earlier this month, commentator and former Vermont governor Jim Douglas listened to the Governor's inaugural message with considerable interest - and a strong sense of déjà vu.

(Douglas) I have to admit that Governor Shumlin's inaugural address left me with mixed emotions. His renewed focus on education as the key to a more informed, just and contributing society is welcome; it can surely strengthen our economy and improve Vermonters' quality of life. In fact, I found little with which to disagree, but it also sounded very familiar.

In 2006, my own administration proposed a program called ‘Promise Scholarships,' whereby a Vermonter would have a portion of his or her college expenses paid in exchange for living and working in our state. I argued that it was essential to address the decline in the number of working-age Vermonters and ensure an adequate pool of skilled employees. This program would respond to the crisis of affordability in higher education so that more high school graduates would attend one of our fine institutions rather than go elsewhere. Per capita, more young Vermonters leave their home state for college than anywhere else; that's ironic, as we have the greatest proportional number of institutions of higher learning in the nation.

But the legislature opted instead for a study commission that recommended a much smaller program that was approved the following year. It helped a few students, but was far less robust than I had hoped. Meanwhile, tuition and costs have risen, while family incomes have not. Our state continues to age and employers are having trouble finding enough qualified workers.

So I was very pleased to hear the Governor emphasize a curriculum known as STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. With no disrespect to the humanities, it's widely believed that these fields are where we need to compete internationally. In 2007 I proposed the creation of regional STEM schools named for Senator Robert Stafford, a national champion of education. Nothing much came of the idea then, but perhaps there's more support now.

I hope the same will hold true for the Governor's commitment to early education. My administration launched the Building Bright Futures program in 2004, but when I recommended a 20% increase for child care subsidies in my final budget 3 years ago, the legislature approved only a 15% hike, while passing completely on a comparable request for higher education. And I can't help but wonder if we'd still be experiencing a declining labor force and population if we had launched a significant scholarship program 7 years ago.

There's another lesson here in the face of our increasingly polarized political discourse. The same year that I presented my Promise Scholarship plan, my counterpart in Michigan offered a nearly identical proposal in her state. There, a Republican legislature rejected the proposal of a Democratic governor, the mirror image of what occurred here.

The decline in collegiality in Washington is legendary. And I worry that some of that discord may be seeping into state legislatures, too. It's high time, I think, to insist that our elected officials consider ideas based on their merit, rather than on who proposed them - and their party affiliation.


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