Douglas: Education Initiatives

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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.

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.

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

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