Shumlin turns focus on schools, pledges new money for education

A governor who spent his first two years in office vowing to grow jobs says he’ll spend his second term creating workers.

In an inaugural address that focused almost solely on education, Gov. Peter Shumlin said he’ll cultivate a skilled workforce to fill the hundreds of open positions for which employers tell him they cannot find qualified workers.

“At the same time that so many Vermonters need to make more money to make life work … our employers, from border to border, are eager to find workers with the right educational skills – and they have good money to pay,” Shumlin said.

The House chamber was packed Thursday with lawmakers, high-ranking administration officials, media and Vermont citizens who traveled to witness the inaugural ceremony. In a break from tradition, Shumlin focused the entirety of his State of the State on a single topic, saying public education has failed to adapt quickly enough to a rapidly evolving technology economy.

“Success in the new economy depends on an educated workforce with skills beyond high school in science, computer technology, computer engineering and math,” Shumlin said. “I ask you: is Vermont prepared to meet this challenge? Are we ready to harness this opportunity so critical to our future prosperity? The plain truth is, we are not.”

Shumlin said 62 percent of job openings in the next decade will require post-secondary education, yet only about 45 percent of Vermont students “who begin ninth grade continue their education past high school.”

Shumlin said the education gap is particularly stark for children from poor famlies.

“With the vast amount of money that we spend per pupil in Vermont, we have failed to move low-income Vermont kids beyond high school,” Shumlin said.

Solving the problem means structural reforms and heightened taxpayer investment on everything from early childhood education to higher education.

“It is long past time for us to put our money where our mouths have been, and strengthen our commitment to universal early childhood education,” he said.

As is custom, the State of the State was more high-level vision than nuts-and-bolts game plan. But the Shumlin put forth  some specific proposals. Among them:

 

-Redirect $17 million from the earned income tax credit and use it to subsidize childcare for lower-income parents. This “largest single investment in early childhood education in Vermont’s history”  would double state spending on childcare for low-income families.

“There is no bigger obstacle to Vermont parent who want to work or advance than the high cost of quality childcare,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin said his budget – to be unveiled on Jan. 24 – will also include fund to “initiate” publicly funded preschools where they don’t currently exist.

 

-Increase state appropriations to state colleges and the University of Vermont by 3 percent next year. The excess funds would be earmarked solely for financial aid and scholarships for Vermonters. Shumlin says the budget increase will be enough to hold all Vermont students harmless from any tuition hikes next year.

 

-Vermont Strong Scholars Program: a “simple” program wherein students who graduate from a Vermont college or university with a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics field, get their last year of tuition paid for by the state. The money would be paid out over five years. People who graduate with an associates degree in a “STEM” field get their last semester of tuition paid for over three years.

 

-Personal Learning Plans that “travel with each student from elementary through their senior year.” The plans would tie educational goals to career opportunities, “making school more relevant.”

 

-Double funding for the so-called “dual enrollment” program that allows students to gain college credits while they’re in high school. Shumlin said he also wants to expand the number of students permitted to simultaneously complete their senior year of high school and first year of college.

 

-Vermont Innovation Zones: use technical education centers as centers where regional employers could help devise education plans that would prepare students for jobs that would be available upon graduation.