Dane Smith: A specific goal for educated Minnesotans

  • Article by: DANE SMITH
  • Updated: October 4, 2010 - 7:11 PM

Seventy-five percent beyond high school by 2020. Gubernatorial takers?

On top of a huge revenue shortage for a state budget earmarked mostly for schools and colleges and investment in children, Minnesota's next governor will be immediately immersed in some of the biggest policy brawls on education since the Sputnik scare of 1957 or the "Nation at Risk" report of 1982.

Suddenly, it seems, hubbub is breaking out everywhere over national and state education quality and results. Flash points include the new documentary movie "Waiting for 'Superman'''; NBC's News' extraordinary "Education Nation'' project, and a recent Time magazine cover story, "What Makes a School Great.''

The rancorous struggle this year over Minnesota's failed application for federal Race to the Top funds is only a warmup for the conflict that lies ahead. So what's a new governor to do?

Leadership should be about thinking big and beyond -- and specific goal-setting is the one crucial step that the next governor can take to provide perspective and unifying purpose. So on Inauguration Day, or in his first State of the State speech, or even in the campaign between now and Election Day, here's what a new governor could say, in two paragraphs:

"By 2020, I want 75 percent of Minnesota's young adults to have some sort of postsecondary degree or credential, whether it's a license to be a nursing home attendant, or completion of a vocational school program, or a two-year or four-year degree. We will at once begin implementing evidence-tested school reforms and new investments, such as early childhood education, that help us reach that goal.

"Right now, if you are a parent, your child only has a 50-50 chance of getting that crucial career preparation of higher-ed completion by the age of 25. Reaching this goal will improve those odds by half again. And reaching this goal will ensure that Minnesota continues to have one of the healthiest economies and most profitable business sectors in the nation.''

Making the goal official for Minnesota, codifying it in law or by legislative resolution, is important. We already have several such long-term policy goals written into law, including for renewable energy and broadband access.

The attainment goal of 75 percent is at least as important as those two to our long-term well-being, and it has the added benefit of being achievable. The consensus for it among business and nonprofit groups and the philanthropic sector is so far-reaching that other governors will be compelled to retain it and refine it.

Among the gathering mass of allies are two prominent national and state foundations, the Indiana-based Lumina Foundation and the Bush Foundation in Minnesota. President Obama has set a different but similarly specific goal of restoring the United States as the most highly educated nation in the world.

Lumina recently released a report, "A Stronger Nation through Higher Education,'' that sets as "The Big Goal'' a 60 percent attainment of two-year or four-year degrees by 2025. The report shows that Minnesota ranks near the top in attainment but that only 45 percent of Minnesotans have at least a two-year degree. Minnesota for decades has been better than average on attainment, and it makes sense for our new goal to remain higher than national expectations.

The overlooked and encouraging news from the campaign trail is that the candidates themselves, although polarized on many other issues, have found some encouraging common ground on the obstacles to the attainment goal. In a recent TPT-TV debate, each of the three said they believe that more or better investment in early childhood education was important and that too many kids are not ready for kindergarten or first grade and never catch up. A second crucial agreement was that the attainment gap between white kids and children from African-American, Latino, American Indian and Asian families was simply unacceptable. The latter comprise by far the fastest-growing part of the state's population, and their test scores and higher-ed attainment rates represent either a recipe for disaster or an opportunity for an economic renaissance.

It's not a stretch at all to frame attainment as the most important thing we can do to prepare for the future. Although a 75 percent level is a bit arbitrary, it has some science behind it. Minnesota's economy already is smarter than average, and according to a recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 70 percent of Minnesota's jobs by 2018 will require postsecondary education.

And setting a specific goal has a way of bringing us together and clarifying the mission, so our battles are constructive. It also means more rapid progress. As David Metzen, director of the Office of Higher Education, puts it, "You run faster if you have a goal and a stopwatch than you do if you have neither.''

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a Minnesota-based policy research organization that advocates for public investments that broaden prosperity.

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