Oliver: S.D. Must Invest in K-12 Education

The following op-ed by Augustana President Rob Oliver appears in the Monday, Nov. 28, edition of the Argus Leader:

My Voice: S.D. must invest in K-12 education

I am, without a doubt, a passionate advocate for education. I believe it provides membership to the lifelong club of eternal curiosity. The more we know, the more apt we are to question, discuss, explore, seek and find.

In doing so, we work toward the goal of creating a better future for the communities we call home. One might say my advocacy relates to my profession – I am a college president. I am also a proud South Dakotan, a parent and one of the multimillion-member generation known as the “baby boomers.”

So, it goes without saying that I feel compelled —responsible even — to respond to two different news stories that surfaced last week related to education in our state. The first was a detailed report unveiled at the Regional Workforce Summit held last week in Mitchell.

According to the Argus Leader, “the purpose of the summit was to address the magnitude of skilled labor jobs available through the James River Basin and find ways to fill those positions. Officials at the summit outlined the need to train more young people for skilled labor work, citing a large number of well-paying jobs right here in South Dakota in fields such as manufacturing and construction.

I certainly concur that we need trained and able workers in these jobs . At the summit, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, according to the Argus Leader, said students should be encouraged to pursue skilled trades. “That's where the jobs are, yet we're spending all the money learning things that won't help us get a job," he was quoted as saying.

I’m certain Daugaard didn’t mean for his remarks to sting the 25 percent of our state’s residents who hold bachelor’s degrees or the seven percent who hold advanced degrees. My guess is we are in agreement that we need both vocationally trained and college degreed citizens if we are to succeed in the future.

According to the South Dakota Board of Regents’ FY2011 Factbook, “postsecondary education will become increasingly important as our state and national economy adapts to changing circumstances.” The regents’ report points to occupational information supplied by the U.S. and South Dakota departments of labor to reinforce its claim:

  • Occupations requiring some type of postsecondary education in South Dakota will grow by 15.9 percent, generating more than 68,000 job opportunities from 2006 to 2016.
  • 60 percent of future jobs will require training that only 20 percent of today’s workers possess.

The report also argued that a more highly educated population will be better suited to attract and retain more information-age business and industry; lower unemployment rates and health costs; improve voter participation, volunteerism and civic engagement and raise aggregate income.

Next came the news of a survey by the Associated School Boards of South Dakota reporting that public schools in our state cut some 465 full-time jobs last year — including 266 teaching positions — in response to a 6.6 percent reduction in state aid.

The regents’ report came to mind as I compared the news: one story calling for more skilled workers, the other outlining the loss of 266 teachers.

So here’s the bottom line: How can we adequately prepare the young people of this state for a bright future in any field — from plumbing to medicine — if we continue to chip away at the education provided to them from kindergarten through grade 12?

With fewer teachers and programs, it will become harder and harder for our young people to find that spark of inspiration they need to chart their future course once they near the end of high school — whether that’s a bachelor’s degree or vocational training. Statistics tell us that those who drop out are eight times more likely to end up in trouble with the law than those who graduate high school, so if we don’t invest in education, will we find ourselves needing to invest more in jails and prisons?

In 1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about how obtaining an education – at any level – is something to be celebrated, because education changes lives. “The gains of education are never really lost. Books may be burned and cities sacked, but truth, like the yearning for freedom, lives in the hearts of humble men,” Roosevelt said.

FDR is essentially saying that education is an investment, of which the returns never stop. As I’ve said before, I believe we need to invest in education in order to invest in the future of South Dakota. It is the best and most lasting stimulus for building our economy and developing a civil society.

With their vote on the events center earlier this month, the citizens of Sioux Falls showed their optimism and willingness to invest in a project that will deliver returns for their community – jobs, revenue for business owners, cultural opportunities and more. As the 2012 legislative session nears, I’m hopeful that, as fellow South Dakotans, you will join me as advocates for education.

Let’s make it clear to our elected officials that we cannot continue to cut education and still expect a brighter future for our state. We must invest in it. It just makes sense.

Kelly Sprecher
Director of Communications & Media Relations