To boost Indiana's economic vitality, reform high schools and retrain biz leaders

March 30, 2009

A frequent reader of these columns protests my persistent attention to Indiana's long-term economic problems. He wants to hear about my recommended solutions.

His will be done in Crothersville and Chesterton, as in Portland and Princeton.

To start, I confess my faith in infrastructure. Build Interstate 69. Convert interstates to toll roads. Upgrade water and sewer systems.

Develop extensive recycling programs and public transit systems. Encourage virtue and be nice to tourists.

But most important, improve public high schools. As it is said, "By their schools ye shall know them." High schools are magnets. Parents with strong aspirations for their children's futures will move to those places with good high schools.

Primary and middle school students will follow the lead of high school students. Young children copy their older brothers and sisters. If high school students dress well, speak properly, read voraciously and abstain from adult vices, elementary students will do likewise. We need not start in the first grade and hope for success 12 years later.

If Indiana is to improve its economy, it must attract the people who will transform assembly-line workers into highly productive students of advanced technology and systems. Those we seek to attract may be already members of the Hoosier Nation. They may be former Hoosiers who have left and could return if favorably enticed. Or they may be foreigners (including Buckeyes and Gators) who do not appreciate what we consider Hoosier charm and mystique.

Our high schools and their students demonstrate the values of our communities. Employers look to Indiana for more than its tax environment and spectator sports. They are interested equally in the quality of the communities in which they, their workers and children will live. High schools help define communities.

When Indiana high schools graduate or otherwise release ill-prepared students, it shows in every aspect of our community. illiterate ill-informed, lackadaisical and excessively pierced young people roaming our streets and disrupting our attempts at civilization cannot impress favorably those who want to do business in Indiana.

Sure, Indiana can get call centers and warehouses. Certainly, our leaders can tout these as parts of the information age and key links in supply-chain logistics. But we know the boiler room and forklift for what they are.

Investing in high schools does not mean vast increases in budgets. Instead, it requires a restructuring of educational expectations with revised demands on students, teachers and parents, accompanied by extensive state oversight. This might mean trading some tournaments for more teaching and learning.

Yet this is but the obvious. Beyond a sincere effort to improve high school education, we require massive retraining of our business leaders and managers.

How could this be? Those who run businesses are the rocks upon which we build our communities. The manager sent here from elsewhere to run the branch plant is an exotic catch for the board of a local not-for-profit organization. The owner of a local business is esteemed if it is believed he has made even a modest fortune and has a low golf handicap.

While I know several thoughtful and innovative managers and business owners, the numbers are not overwhelming. More numerous are the staid, unbending advocates for the past, poor managers and weak leaders who do not examine the role they play in Indiana's economic stagnation.

New ideas and methods are too often ridiculed. Fresh directions are viewed as personal assaults. But how does a state revive its business sector?

Are we to establish local chapters of Mis-managers Anonymous? Does the governor exhort increased innovation? Does the General Assembly fund a Department of Business Regeneration?

The Legislature? Regeneration? Now that's funny.


Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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