Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Education - The Key to the Door of the 21st Century

“All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”

- Aristotle

I spent part of the morning visiting with some of the members of our local Rotary Club. Like the Lions Club, which I’m a member of, their ideal is service. Over the years the Lions has done significant work on issues dealing with sight, including river blindness, sight partnerships, cataract surgeries, eyeglass recycling, and so forth. Currently, Lions is embarking on an ambitious program called Sight First II, aimed at raising $150,000,000 to continue the work already begun on the issues I just outlined. Rotary, our sister service organization, has done Herculean work on eradicating polio. And, like Lions, they have fostered good will, fellowship, and cultural understanding not only here in Emporia, but around the world. I’m proud to be a Lion and I’m sure that the members of Rotary are proud of their work of service as well.

This morning’s presentation was done by Jim Harter, Emporia State University’s Vice-President of the International Education. One of the highlights of his presentation was the growth in international programs here in Emporia, including increases in the number of international students and increases in the number of sister programs springing up in countries around the world. It’s a very healthy development.

After the presentation, Mike Helbert, one of Rotary’s local leaders, asked how I, as a candidate, felt about the city’s role in supporting Emporia State University. I told him that I believed that municipal support for the university’s efforts here is absolutely critical. In previous posts I’ve outlined in detail our current problems – low median incomes, high taxes, high poverty rates, businesses leaving. One of the keys to improvement and economic and cultural revival for this city is higher education. It’s the key to the door of the 21st century.

I’ve been talking to whoever in town will listen about the 21st century economy, 21st jobs, and 21st century wages. At least one of the incumbents has said that we don’t have the skill-sets for that type of economy. I refuse to believe that. We have two top notch schools here – Emporia State University and Flint Hills Technical College. The University has a plan to expand its student base by a couple of thousand over the next few years. I’d like a lot of them to be Emporians. I’d like to assist Emporians who have, for economic or social reasons, been locked out of higher education. I’d like to see a new generation of Hispanics and other minorities become the human fuel for this city’s revitalization.

How can that be done? After all, the city seems to be broke. Here’s how. Right now there are over a million dollars available in an account for industrial development. The city of Emporia needs to find a way to invest a portion of those dollars now laying fallow into educational opportunity grants for needy students. Tie those grants into a commitment for the students to become entrepreneurs here at home. It’s the same sort of thing that rural communities do to bring medical professionals into their towns. Why not do the same for information technology entrepreneurs or those wanting to develop a bio-fuels cooperative or some other sort of 21st century startup venture?

For too long now the city has focused on the manufacturing sector, which has been relocating off-shore in order to compete in the new global economy. That has meant less jobs available in that sector in the United States and lower wages for those who stay. The amazing growth in our economy has been in the sector economists call “knowledge based.” Right now, that sector represents 34% of America’s jobs, and it also represents a remarkable increase in wages for those working in that sector. America’s future lies in bio-tech, bio-sciences, bio-fuels, information technology and new industries that have not yet even sprung up.

Some in the current leadership will argue that such an ambitious endeavor will require new taxes. I disagree. More on that tomorrow.

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