Pauls Valley, OK, Pauls Valley Democrat

August 25, 2011

Governor, cabinet talk education

“We need more college graduates”

Silas Allen
CNHI News Service

Stillwater, Oklahoma — A critical step toward advancing Oklahoma’s economy is ensuring the state has a qualified work force, Gov. Mary Fallin said Wednesday.

Fallin, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb and members of Fallin’s cabinet spoke at a town hall forum at Oklahoma State University’s Wes Watkins Center Wednesday afternoon. During the forum, Fallin and other speakers discussed the role of education in the state’s overall economic health.

Oklahoma’s economy is leaning more and more toward science- and technology-related industry, Fallin said, meaning many of the new jobs being created in the state are tech-related. As such, state leaders must ensure the education system is producing workers who are qualified to fill those jobs.

“We need more college graduates,” she said. “We are living in a knowledge-based economy.”

Earlier this year, Fallin signed a budget deal that included 5 percent cuts to higher education and 4 percent cuts to common education — prekindergarten through 12th-grade — while cutting state income taxes by .25 percent.

State agencies took “targeted cuts” rather than seeing their budgets slashed across the board, Fallin said. Such cuts allowed the state to plug a $500 million budget shortfall while preserving essential services, Fallin said.

Keeping taxes low is also important to the overall health of Oklahoma’s economy, Fallin said, because states with lower income tax tend to see job growth, leading to greater economic stability.

Even as common and higher education saw budget cuts, Fallin said state officials have been working to help those agencies cut costs.

For example, she said, that includes upgrading the state’s purchase card system. Like many state workers, OSU employees use the cards to make business-related purchases, including educational supplies and laboratory equipment. University officials have said the new system is more efficient than the previous one.

Next month, Oklahoma will be participating in Complete College America, a nationwide initiative that is designed to encourage people to seek postsecondary education. That includes college as well as technical and vocational certification programs, she said.

Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce Dave Lopez said Oklahoma employers have told him that a solid work force is increasingly important to the health of their companies. A qualified work force is becoming a larger determining factor in where businesses choose to locate, he said, overtaking other variables like tax incentives.

“You can’t get economic development without a strong education system to provide the work force,” he said.

One of the problems plaguing not only Oklahoma but the United States in general is a “misalignment” between the aspirations of students and their actual behavior, said Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki. Most students report they are interested in pursuing postsecondary education, she said, but only 48 percent of high school graduates actually enter a postsecondary program.

Education beyond the high school level is critical to having employment opportunities, Hudecki said. As the economy becomes more specialized, employers tend to demand higher levels of education when seeking employees. To make themselves more employable, Hudecki said, it’s important for Oklahomans to pursue education beyond the high school level.

“It’s the ticket into the rest of your life,” she said.

Secretary of Science and Technoloy Stephen McKeever said national statistics regarding science and technology education are worrisome. Universities are increasingly seeing incoming freshmen who don’t have a sound background in science and mathematics, he said. That trend forces universities to offer more and more remedial courses in areas related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, he said.

Additionally, he said, fewer and fewer students are interested in pursuing careers in those areas. The majority of new jobs in the future will be tech-related, he said, so it’s important for the education sector to produce a work force that is qualified to fill those positions.

“We don’t have enough people to enter those fields,” he said.

McKeever, who also serves as OSU’s vice president for research and technology transfer, said a disconnect exists between children’s interests and the fields they decide to pursue when they’re older. Children are overwhelmingly interested in dinosaurs and space, he said — both subjects that deal in science. But when they grow up, they lose interest in pursuing those areas of study.

McKeever said part of the problem is the way science is taught. Rather than engaging students in the scientific process, he said, science courses tend to involve book work.

McKeever compared that method with the way football is taught. The equivalent, he said, would be if schools held daily courses about the game but couldn’t afford to build a field or buy pads.

In many cases, McKeever said, public schools don’t have laboratory space, meaning they can’t provide students with the experience of working on hands-on projects. As valuable as classroom instruction is, he said, it doesn’t inspire students to pursue a career in science.

“We’re teaching kids about science,” he said. “We’re not teaching them to do science.”

Silas Allen writes for the Stillwater NewsPress.