Around the Institute

Democratic Governors Discuss Education as Economic Opportunity

August 6, 2014  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Above, watch the full McCloskey Speaker Series conversation with the governors of Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

Improving the education system by expanding early education and making higher education more diverse and more affordable is America’s best bet at producing a competitive workforce for the future, a panel of Democratic governors said recently at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, CO.

The event, part of the McCloskey Speaker Series, included the governors of Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Much like a similar panel of Republican governors the week before, the conversation, moderated by Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson, focused heavily on education.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin noted that his state recently passed a law requiring school districts to provide 10 hours of free, universal pre-K each week, and that Vermont’s next focus is on quality daycare for ages zero to three, especially for low-income and at-risk children.

“If we invest in education from [age] zero on up, we’ve got a bright economic future in this country; if we don’t, we wont. It’s that simple,” said Shumlin.

Martin O’Malley, governor of Maryland, said that one of the greatest jumps in student achievement, specifically among first and second graders, was seen when his state went to full-day kindergarten several years ago. And in the last seven years, with expanded pre-K learning, the state has seen a jump from 61 percent to 83 percent of kids entering kindergarten ready to learn. Maryland’s “commitment and intentional leadership” in education has resulted in the state being recognized by Education Week magazine as the No. 1 state for public education five years in a row, he added.

O’Malley said he hopes Maryland can move toward universal pre-K. “It’s a huge return on our investment,” he said.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan agreed, although she noted that her state of rather independent thinkers only started providing half-day kindergarten in 2006.

“I think our local school districts understand the value of training private daycare providers,” said Hassan, who added that she believes New Hampshire is moving toward more universal early childhood education.

Education experimentation in Colorado has had its rewards, said Gov. John Hickenlooper. A Colorado task force recognized early childhood education as a great investment, and Denver voters in 2006 passed a .12 percent sales tax to fund preschool scholarships for at-risk kids — a program that is now recognized as a national model. Colorado also has a fluid charter school system and increased teacher pay, said Hickenlooper.

Minnesota raised taxes on its wealthiest citizens to fund, in part, education, said Gov. Mark Dayton, who added that his state has a fast-growing economy and low unemployment. “Gutting education and essential services is just not the solution, and we’re proof positive of that,” he said, alluding to Republican emphasis on tax cuts as the main driver for economic growth.

Touting Missouri’s efforts to increase preschool funding and introduce more rigorous K-12 standards, Gov. Jay Nixon called education “the best economic development tool we have.”

On the other end of the education spectrum, the governors agreed that more must be done to make college affordable and to provide more higher education opportunities outside of the traditional campus-based four-year college model.

Noting that Missouri has the lowest college tuition in the country, Nixon said that it’s still too expensive for many people.

“We’ve got to make sure college is affordable,” he said. “Affordability of higher education is one of the significant problems we have as a country.”

Colorado added $100 million to the state budget for higher education scholarships last year, said Hickenlooper. “The message is if you work hard enough through college, we’ll make sure you don’t leave with a bunch of debt,” he said.

Maryland has gone four years without increasing college tuition rates, and New Hampshire has frozen college tuition for the first time in 25 years. But governors of both those states agree that more must be done to make higher learning affordable.

The way degrees are delivered has to be rethought, said Maryland’s O’Malley, including an emphasis on online learning and “the sage on the stage giving way to the guide on the side.” College credit in senior year of high school, and industry-recognized certificates for in-demand skills are other examples of reducing reliance on expensive four-year colleges.

“We have to focus on nontraditional learners and mid-career folks,” said New Hampshire’s Hassen, who gave an example of a pilot program in her state that gave high school students one year of college credit.

Neighboring Vermont has a similar college credit for high schoolers, as well as a STEM-based program that pays for up to a year of college tuition, essentially providing up to two years of free college education. Vermont’s Schuler advocated for a more flexible, less cookie-cutter system that doesn’t rely solely on four-year college degrees for success.

Schuler also questioned why education is primarily funded by property taxes, which he calls regressive, because the quality of a school district depends on the value of its property. Vermont has turned this system on its heels and now funds education through a variety of sources, significantly reducing dependence on property taxes.

The governors also touched on economic progress, touting achievements in Minnesota and Missouri compared to neighboring Republican-led states. They discussed the Affordable Care Act, which they characterized as a work in progress (Vermont is the only state that has moved to a single-payer system), as well as the benefit of having progressive social policies, the importance of cooperation and collaboration, hydraulic fracturing and its environmental costs versus economic benefits, and the importance of arts in the schools.