Isn’t it funny how sometimes things are a crisis, then suddenly they’re not?
It wasn’t that long ago that a lot of us were steamed about the state’s cuts to education – K-12 and higher. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing people grouse that we were shortchanging our future to save a few bucks.
Around that time, a report from Forward Sioux Falls, the group that develops an economic development blueprint every five years, warned that Sioux Falls is falling behind competing cities in raising the education and innovation levels of the work force.
A small window on that issue: About 39 percent of Sioux Falls residents, according to a 2009 study, hold an associate degree or higher. That seems pretty good until you discover that the number in Des Moines is 43 percent and in Fargo – Fargo! – it’s 46 percent. In a measurement of innovation – the number of patents produced per 100,000 – Des Moines came in at 42, Fargo stood at 32 and Sioux Falls was at 8.
There are logical reasons why we lag in these critical areas, including the absence of a large university in Sioux Falls, but it’s difficult to find the silver lining in these statistics in the wake of our recent cuts in state support to all levels of education.
Of equal concern, I noted in a column last spring, is that while everyone across the nation has slashed government support for education, South Dakota historically has rebounded from these funding cycles more slowly than other states. We tend to be more cautious in the rebound – and that might not bode well in our competition against other regional cities – Minneapolis, Omaha, Fargo, Des Moines, Lincoln – for good companies and high-paying jobs.
Another signal of the seriousness of this problem arrived last week in another release of census data. While technological advances during the past decade make it possible to live and work almost anywhere, the nation’s most educated people continue to cluster in a small number of metro areas, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Now, the Journal reported, a city’s overall education level and supply of higher-skilled labor are the biggest drivers of its economic success. Among the metro areas with the biggest 10-year growth in college-educated populations: Omaha.
“In a knowledge economy, success breeds success,” Alan Berube, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Journal.
I know what you’re thinking: We may be behind other places in college degrees, but we’ve got blue skies, good streets, neighborhoods that are largely crime-free and swell pheasant hunting.
Indeed, those all are nice things, but as most Sioux Falls leaders will tell you if they’re candid, a city’s long-term success relies heavily on a diverse economy that creates good jobs for young families – and that has everything to do with education.
So what happens next?
The worst thing that could happen, in my view, is that we lapse into a sort of reverse smugness sometimes found among what my father would call the “bottom third.” In our society, those who cannot or do not (for a variety of self-imposed reasons) sometimes can seek comfort in the fact that others sit in the same, leaky boat.
During my early years here in God’s Country, in an effort to focus public attention on our shoddy teacher compensation, I launched an unofficial organization called WALABAM – We’re At Least as Bad as Mississippi.
It mocked the social phenomenon to which I referred above – the notion that, coming in at 49th place in teacher salaries, South Dakotans could at least find some solace in beating that state south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
There’s no pride in being behind – and we shouldn’t pretend there is.
So what should happen next?
First, and most important, is that Gov. Dennis Daugaard needs to articulate a vision (and multi-year plan) for refunding and improving education. And he needs to do this before the Legislature, now dominated by anti-Sioux Falls interests, commences to inflict its tea party brand of politics on the rest of us.
Second, a cross-section of business leaders from the entire state needs to publicly and loudly support the governor (and education) in this campaign. Too often, business, ever sensitive to controversy in any form, keeps to the back room, testing which way the wind blows.
Our schools – K-12 and higher education – need business to publicly champion their importance and push the politicians to do the right thing.
Finally, you and I need to speak up and demand better and more from our public officials, from our state, from each other.
Whether we admit it or not, education was and is in crisis in South Dakota. That reality won’t go away if we just ignore it.
Blue skies just aren’t enough.