VIEWPOINT: Illiteracy is a hot economic issue

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“Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?” So goes the refrain from the musical “1776,” when George Washington communicates his frustration with how badly the Revolutionary War is going while the Continental Congress continues to
debate the pros and cons of declaring independence from the British crown.

Does anybody in Indiana see what I see? I see an economy, slowly recovering, but not booming like the rest of the country. I see state tax collections gradually increasing, but not equaling national growth rates. I see our state’s economicdevelopment program gaining momentum, but possibly not fast enough to replace the economic vitality lost during the last recession. A scary scenario is the possibility that our state might not recover before the next national recession.

Clearly, a sense of urgency exists at the Indiana Economic Development Corp., which is racking up an impressive list of successes, but the state’s education resources need to be mobilized quickly to re-educate the existing work force so Indiana can compete effectively.

Two initiatives are targeted in the Indiana strategy, (“Accelerating Growth,” recently released by the Daniels administration) that need to be moved to the top of the priority list in the next session of the General Assembly. Significant efforts
are being made to upgrade high school education and reduce the dropout rate, but little is being done to eliminate the illiteracy in our work force.

“Eliminate functional illiteracy in the work force,” says the Daniels plan in its section dubbed “Pro Talent Initiatives.” This requires a massive effort to teach reading, writing and mathematics to what the Indiana Chamber of Commerce estimates is more than 800,000 people. The plan calls for a politically controversial realignment of Adult Basic Education Funds from public schools to a new office of 21st century career education under the jurisdiction of the Department of Workforce Development.

This change provides $20 million each year to be used in programs that are especially designed for the existing work force. The teaching would be done on community college campuses, at the job site or other convenient locations. Especially important is that teaching methods would be used that are designed for adults, not the same approaches that were used in K-12 that obviously failed.

The second target is to “double the number of adult part-time learners by 2020.” In 2000, Indiana launched the community college initiative as an effort to expand higher education statewide and increase adult participation. The results have been impressive, with 27,300 added to the post-high-school enrollment records. But the reality is that the state
would have to double the adult enrollment of the current community college system just to equal the average enrollment in the United States based on population. To do this, the community college system must grow 5 percent annually and will need $12 million in new funds each year for the next 14 years.

Setting a priority of this magnitude will possibly require the Legislature to shift its funding priority from four-year-degreegranting institutions to the community college system. Credit hours are less expensive on these campuses and programs can be more easily tailored for two-year degrees and certificates that result in higher-paying jobs and access to four-year programs.

Both of these initiatives are massive and far-reaching and target specific sectors of our society. Both require existing institutions to change and to do it with a sense of urgency. Both require risk-taking by our governor and the Legislature. Both also require individual citizens to be willing to re-educate themselves, make some sacrifices, and be willing to change their lives. Failure to act while we still have a chance to catch up will relegate our state to mediocrity and backwater status. Does anybody see what I see?

Mutz, chairman of the Lumina Foundation for Education, served as Indiana’s lieutenant governor from 1981 to 1989.

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