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John Florez: New economy requires bold overhaul of education

We need to connect the dots. Without education, there are no jobs.

Now is not the time to skimp on education or to be timid. With a budget shortfall, lawmakers should take the long view, and bold steps are needed to meet the challenges of the global economy, or they will risk our children's and nation's future. Forget about the old jobs; they are not coming back.

"A recent McKinsey Global Institute report found that 71 percent of U.S. workers hold jobs for which there is decreasing demand, increasing supply, or both," (Newsweek, Dec. 21, 2009). Investing in our children and in Utah's future must begin now.

Ten years from now, in 2020, today's sixth-graders will graduate from college and compete for jobs yet to be invented. We are already behind other nations. China and Brazil have come out of the world financial crisis stronger, richer and better educated. Their workers are better prepared to get the higher-paying jobs anywhere in the world.

The new economy requires a higher-skilled and better-educated work force, where creativity and imagination are the currency needed to succeed. Nobody knows what new jobs will be needed 10 years from now. Our world is changing exponentially while our schools are changing incrementally. For us to say our schools are doing better is not good enough. That's like saying 75 percent effort is good enough. Our children deserve a world-class education.

We continue to do education on the cheap while other nations do the opposite. They invest more while we keep tinkering with an outdated system. Utah should see its growing and younger population as an asset rather than a problem. What we do for students sitting in our classrooms today will determine our tomorrows. We have a choice. And it's not about choosing higher education funding over K-12 education. It's both; however, if we don't invest in elementary/secondary education, we can forget about higher education. That's its pool. We are already spending higher education money on remedial education because we don't do it right the first time.

Let's not talk about reform — that's scary stuff — or another study; rather, let's talk about what legislators should do — stop being enablers, micromanagers and help the State School Board carry out its constitutional charge to educate all children, urban and rural; give local school boards the money based on how many students graduate, go on to living-wage jobs or higher education, and as the teachers' union billboards said, "no excuses."

Elected leaders need to create a culture that values teaching so it attracts our best, and compensate them for the added value they bring rather than longevity. As with industry, the state should compensate them up front instead of the back end. School boards should hire and keep highly effective, rather than simply highly qualified, teachers. Legislators should implement "equalization" statewide. All children — rich, poor, urban, rural — should receive a quality education. In today's technical world, we are limited only by our imagination and our commitment to educate all our children.

Knowledge, creativity and innovation are the currency needed in the new economy. All children are born with inquiring and creative minds — rich, poor and minority — the question is what teachers do with them. People enter the teaching profession to cultivate children's minds. While money is important, frontline teachers will tell you they want an environment where they are valued, respected and supported, so they are eager to motivate and challenge students to have the love of learning necessary to thrive in an ever-changing world.

Their future depends upon what we do today.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net.