The nation’s governors last week called on states to improve math and science instruction in high schools, rethink the role of higher education in supporting economic growth, and use state policies to develop more fast-growing, high-tech businesses in their regions.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano’s “Innovation America” initiative, the keystone of her one-year term as the chairwoman of the National Governors Association, seeks to use the political muscle of the governors to help set the education agenda for the country. The goal, Gov. Napolitano said in kicking off the initiative at a meeting here, is to ensure that the United States can maintain its edge in the global economy through innovationin science and technology, both in K-12 and higher education and in the workforce.
“The last thing I want out of this is a report,” said the governor, a Democrat who was re-elected in November to a second term. “We want to provide a toolbox of things governors can do. We want a national message.”
The two-day meeting drew state-level education and workforce officials from 35 states, who met in mostly closed-door sessions to plan how to turn K-12 and higher education into systems that make innovators out of their students.
It’s a complex and ambitious undertaking for the governors, 11 of whom are newly elected. The state leaders are grappling with other vexing issues, including health care and immigration.
But no other issue is as critical to the country’s future as education, argues Gov. Napolitano, who will work with the Washington-based NGA and its Center for Best Practices to implement the initiative. She will finish as chairwoman in July and hand over the reins to the current vice chairman, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican.
“In the U.S. we have an edge, but we are losing that edge,” she said. “This has to be a top priority, or the next generation of Americans will suffer.”
The next generation needs to look no farther for warnings than Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp., one of the nation’s top Internet-security companies, which employs about 17,000 workers—half of whom are overseas.
John W. Thompson, its chairman and chief executive officer, said in an interview that what states need to do is improve public schools and their products—meaning the students, and future job seekers.
“To the extent that product is not competitive, then we’re going to have to move,” Mr. Thompson said of his company. “That’s the unfortunate reality of a global business.”
Mr. Thompson is part of the 17-member task force guiding the NGA initiative. The task force, which convened for the first time last week and will meet throughout 2007, comprises governors, university and community college representatives, and business executives, including eBay Inc. President and CEO Meg Whitman, Microsoft Corp. Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner, and Intel Corp. board Chairman Craig R. Barrett.
States will vie for grants next year to establish high school hubs for STEM subjects, or science, technology, engineering, and math. The NGA will craft a governors’ guide to building a K-12STEM education agenda for release in February and help states develop communications strategies to build public support.
Since most states already are working to add more rigor to high schools, especially in math and science, Gov. Napolitano said she wants to push policymakers a step further. She wants teachers to inspire innovation and entrepreneurship, or in simple terms, to find ways of making students interested in subjects such as math and science.
On the higher education front, Gov. Napolitano will host a two-day national forum in late spring on the role of postsecondary education in supporting innovation. Specifically, she wants states to look at better aligning the academics of a university with the needs of a state’s regional economy.
In the area of regional innovation, governors will receive in February a detailed NGA-commissioned report on how well their states are able to compete globally, region by region and industry by industry.
The work will be done by a Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm, the Monitor Group, and the Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
Governors also will receive three other guides: an overview on innovation, a primer on available technology and development funding, and a look at how states can improve their economies. The NGA will work with the Washington-based Pew Center on the States and, again, with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation to produce those reports.
Minnesota’s Gov. Pawlenty said the nation has to attack competition differently from the ways other countries do. The United States can’t compete against the size of China’s workforce, for example, or Mexico’s low wages.
“If we aren’t going to be the biggest, and we’re not going to be the cheapest, I think we have to be the smartest,” said Gov. Pawlenty, the vice chairman of the initiative.
He said his state is working to promote the growth of what it callsregional innovation centers, or targeted areas of development. The state is known for its medical-device-making companies and its health sciences industry. It also is trying to persuade universities to specialize in those areas or new ones.
“Universities can’t be all things to all people anymore,” Gov. Pawlenty said.
Setting the Agenda
Gov. Napolitano’s initiative could help shape the education debate in the country, if the experience of her NGA predecessors holds true.
In 2004, when then-Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat, became NGA chairman, he zeroed in on redesigning the nation’s high schools. Several states are using grants to remodel their secondary schools’ curricula.
The following year, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who waged his own personal battle against weight gain, made health a priority and helped secure agreements with soda and snack companies to put more nutritious offerings in school vending machines.
This coming year, the governors will use their leverage to lobby federal lawmakers in support of the Innovation America initiative, Gov. Napolitano said.
They may, for example, urge Congress to devote more federal funding to creating or expanding data systems that better track educational outcomes or seek more federal support to help high school dropouts, who will need additional help to be competitive in the evolving workplace.
Governors are better positioned than members of Congress to set the tone for a national debate on innovation, argues Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat on the task force.
“This is national policy being made in 50 states,” she said. “States are the incubators of education.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as NGA Kicks Off Push for ‘Innovation’ Agenda