June 10, 2008

Funding Education

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Imagine after all the rain we’ve just had that you notice some small cracks in your home’s foundation.  At first glance you hope it’s not that bad and pray some simple patch work will take care of the problem.    As the crack grows, so does your painful realization that you are going to need major foundational repairs. Patch work won’t get it anymore!

Our current economy started off much like the home’s eroding foundation.  Problems have long plagued our country’s financial foundation, but we’ve used a patchwork approach to address the concerns.  Much like the heavy rains have exposed weakness in the base of the home, our systemic problems are out there for the world to see.  Whether on a national level, or right here at home, we are forced to deal with the cracks. 

Cracks in education, employment and healthcare.  Cracks in housing foreclosures, gas prices, failed policies, and tax credits.  Cracks in justice systems, transit, or the declining value of the dollar.  Cracks in an outdated farms commodity system, federal energy policy, and outsourcing of jobs have had many of us treading water in rough seas.

Rather than ride out the storm, many businesses and workers are moving elsewhere or shutting down.  Conn Selmer recently announced that it will move its Elkhorn production facility to Ohio.  Just last week, General Motors went public with its plan to close its Janesville plant by 2011.  Our cracks require action.

The question, though, is what kind of action.  Many lawmakers have seized on this moment to call for closing corporate tax loopholes.  Others have focused on artificially manipulating the forces of supply and demand in order to retain jobs and businesses.  Still others have outlined massive plans to create thousands of short-term jobs by redistributing tax dollars.

All those proposals deserve consideration.  But, by themselves, they won’t fix what’s wrong with our economy.  They won’t make our business climate any more investor-friendly.  They won’t bring jobs to the unemployed.  They’re temporary fixes, designed to spackle over the cracks in the short run.

Undoubtedly, we need those short term fixes.  Priority one has to be keeping everything upright.  But we can’t let the exigencies of the moment blind us to the need for long-term repairs to our economy’s foundations.  To avoid future economic crises, we have to enhance the value of our human capital.  We need to pursue a long-term agenda of investment in our workforce, especially when it comes to education.

If the past several years have shown us anything, it’s that Wisconsin’s manufacturing and agricultural sectors can’t continue to drive our state’s economy.  To remain prosperous in the global marketplace Wisconsin must develop its service and technology sectors.  That means developing an educated workforce capable of thriving in emerging fields, like biomedicine and computer sciences, as well as in established fields, like law, nursing, and social services.

Of course, there’s considerable disagreement over the best way to diversify and modernize Wisconsin’s economy.  Those differing perspectives can be healthy, though, if they help us to flesh out the best course of action.  The important thing isn’t that everyone immediately agree on the specifics; it’s that everyone agree that education must be a priority, and that we be willing to invest in it now in order to secure enormous benefits in the future.  If we, as a state, can find that common ground, we’ll be positioned for the sort of informed, insightful policy debate that a strong future requires.