Gov. Shumlin challenges Vermont to focus on education

MONTPELIER (AP) — Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his second inaugural address Thursday almost entirely to education, calling for stronger high school math requirements and college tuition breaks for science, technology and math students.
“Success in the new economy depends on an educated workforce with skills beyond high school in science, computer technology, engineering and math,” the Democratic governor told a House chamber packed with lawmakers, state officials, Vermont’s congressional delegation and others.
“I ask you, ‘Is Vermont prepared to meet this challenge? Are we ready to harness the opportunity so critical to our future prosperity?’ The plain truth is we are not,” the governor said.
“Look at the facts: current estimates show that 62 percent of job openings in the next decade will require post-secondary education. Sixty-two percent. Yet only about 45 percent of Vermont students who begin ninth grade continue their education past high school, and that percentage drops as family incomes decline.”
As solutions, Shumlin called for strengthening education from preschool through college. His proposals included:
•  $17 million in new funding to help lower-income families with childcare, nearly double what the state spends now. “There is no bigger obstacle to Vermont parents who want to work or advance than the high cost of quality childcare,” Shumlin said.
•  More money for free school lunches for children from low-income households.
•  An expansion of a program that allows students to combine their senior year in high school with their first year of college. “For more than a decade, 40 students a year have done this at Vermont Tech, where they concentrate on science and technology with great success,” Shumlin said. “Having only 40 kids in this program is a paltry number.”
The measure effectively reduces the cost of a four-year college education by as much as 25 percent.
•  Tuition breaks for students at the University of Vermont and state colleges who study science, technology, engineering, math and related fields, including paying for the final year in college (over a three-to-five year period) if the student promises to stay and work in the state for that time period.
• A more active role for the business community and creating Innovation Zones for the state’s 17 career and technical centers.
•  An increase in funding for the University of Vermont that would cancel out, for Vermont students, a recently announced 3 percent tuition increase for next year.
The governor said Vermont “falls off the rail in high school math,” with only 36 percent of 11th-graders testing at proficient levels. He blamed that on too few schools making algebra and geometry graduation requirements, and said he wants to require all Vermont students take those courses.
But some lawmakers said the first math problem the governor himself may face is how to pay for his proposals.
Both Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, and Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive, said Shumlin may draw opposition to his plan to pay for the $17 million childcare initiative by taking money from the state’s earned income tax credit, which reduces taxes for lower-income working Vermonters.
Mullin said some “working poor” may lose out, while others who have children would benefit from increased childcare subsidies.
The governor made the recommendation to avoid raising taxes and to redirect the funds now going to help low-income Vermonters in a way that would most directly help break the cycle of poverty — by providing more education and better jobs over the long-term.
Money to fund the changes will still be a problem. Pearson said that even before Shumlin announced his new proposals, revenues for fiscal 2014, which starts July 1, are forecast to fall as much as $70 million below projected needs.
Shumlin and legislative leaders have said they don’t want to raise broad-based taxes, such as those on income and sales, to close the gap.
But Shumlin said in his address that Vermont’s economy is ready to take off once the state can provide enough technically skilled workers for the employers who want to hire them.
He cited a recently announced economic development in far northern Vermont, a region known as the Northeast Kingdom, in which the owners of the Jay Peak ski resort have announced expansions there and at Burke Mountain. He also noted plans for a new biotech company and high-end window maker coming to Newport.
“Under my proposal, high schools and tech centers in the Kingdom would become an innovation zone and would be able to shift current generic course requirements to focus on those that provide the training the region needs,” he said.
“Now is the time to take a good education system in Vermont and make it the best,” he added, concluding, “My vision for Vermont education is clear: let’s offer – from birth to cap and gown, and beyond – the knowledge, creativity, civic lessons, and career opportunities every Vermont child deserves.  Fulfilling this vision will require all hands on deck. And here’s the good news: this is what we do best in Vermont. In challenging times, we find common purpose.”

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