Friday, February 11, 2011

Education is Workforce Development

I recently wrote a column on education reforms. My intent was not to disparage and judge our local school systems or schools. It was simply to suggest that something as important as education should be constantly studied, debated, and improved. Especially given that financial resources have been strained and will continue to be so, we as a community have an obligation to work smarter and be more creative in educating our children.

A few years ago, I heard the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia state that the answer to any question is education, education, and education. I would totally agree. If we want to be a more successful community, a more successful state, and a more successful nation, our students must be given or more appropriately earn a world-class education. I would further state that the ultimate goal of education is preparing future workers for employment. Workforce development and the quality of a community’s work force is one of if not the most important attribute in competing for business retention and business recruitment.

Let me back up and provide a couple of key statistics. Fifty-eight percent of all tax dollars that all of us pay in the various taxes go to fund education. Over $10 billion dollars is spent by our state government on education. The state’s funding for education is augmented by local taxes. Locally, over $245 million is collected in local tax revenues. Of that approximately $174 million is collected by and spent by the two school systems. These numbers do not include those currently being collected for the ESPLOST. Given that almost 60% of state tax dollars and 71% of local tax are invested in education, shouldn’t our expectations be high?

Yesterday, I had the privilege of participating in a conversation with Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High in San Diego, and a small group of business and civic leaders. Mr. Rosentock also spoke Monday evening to a group of over 140 local community citizens. Phillip Brown, Tim Fleming, and Sharon Bonfacious have organized this week’s visit with Mr. Rosenstock. This was the first of a four-part Student-Focused Education series. Others will be held on Nov. 18th of this year, and Feb. 28th and April 14th in 2011.

High Tech High is now a Charter School System in San Diego, California. But, it started as a Technical High School. About 12 years ago, a group of business leaders, civic leaders, and leaders from education begin discussing that change was needed to accelerate educational achievement in San Diego County. The success achieved by High Tech High is remarkable especially when you consider what they have done in only 10 years (last year alone 100% of the graduates were accepted to college).

The group of leaders in San Diego decided to build a Charter School to try a different approach to education. The school would not be controlled by the local school board and would receive normal funding just like existing public schools. High Tech High now operates nine schools in San Diego County: one elementary school, three middle schools, and five high schools. All of these schools serve a diverse, lottery-selected student population; all embody the High Tech High design principles of personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer.

The original concept for our Career Academy was to design and implement an educational experience much like what High Tech did in San Diego. Until recently, funding for a true Charter School did not automatically follow. But with the recent change in state law, a Commission School can be chartered which does allow for state and local funding to follow a student transferring from one school to a commission or charter school. I remember visiting Coweta County back in 2003 or 2004 to see what a Charter School looks like and see what it can accomplish.

Although much of the statistical data illustrates that our schools are good today and continue to improve, many wonder how much better we could be if we challenged the status quo and became more entrepreneurial and creative in our approach to education. One statistic stood out from High Tech High. They are now a mini-district with 9 schools and approximately 4000 students. Their administrative expenses / central office expenses are approximately 6.5% of the budget. The other public systems around them have central office expenses that are over 20% of the budget, and the larger the system, the larger the percentage.

Again without intending any criticism of current efforts, current schools, current teachers, etc., what could we achieve with a more open-minded approach to workforce development / education? Could we be more successful if we erased the political boundaries, forgot old prejudices, and truly looked at education and workforce development from an entirely new paradigm? What if the system was truly linked with the goal in mind that all students would seamlessly move through the process engaged and could leave prepared to be successful in any career field they chose?

I think we have the potential to shock ourselves! Just as businesses must innovate to survive, public institutions must also innovate. In today’s dollars, a twelve year education cost over $120,000. Would any of us invest that kind of money on a status quo initiative or one that over 20% of the time delivers an employee who is unemployable in today’s market?

The Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce has a long history of involvement in education issues. For many reasons, we have not been as involved in recent years. Because education is workforce development and workforce development is critical to economic development, we must be involved more today than ever. The jobs created today require more education than a high school diploma provides. The jobs that many of our young people will do are not even created yet. I am hopeful and confident that our community has the desire, the ability, and the fortitude to be like High Tech High in fundamentally changing our approach to education.

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