By Matthew Tully
Education reform at its best is about more than higher test scores and upticks in other data. More broadly and most fundamentally, it is about providing more opportunities in life for more students.
That's a notion that Mike Pence, the Republican candidate for governor, clearly understands. As he attempts to move from Congress to the Statehouse, Pence is offering a refreshing education ideal that is based on expanding such opportunities. Along the way, he has developed a plan that is as important as any of the crucial education reforms state education policymakers have enacted in recent years -- and likely more universally embraceable.
"It's about creating different pathways for students," Pence said as we chatted at a Downtown coffee shop last weekend. And, he added, his plan is about understanding that solutions can't come in tidy "one-size-fits-all" packages.
Pence's plan centers on the notion that too many high schools, to the state's detriment, have moved away from the type of vocational and career programs that, if executed well, can prepare tens of thousands of students each generation for high-quality jobs. It's a complaint echoed by many teachers and parents, and Pence rightly argues that whether it's welding or agriculture, these programs can prepare students for the workforce, keep many at-risk students engaged, and help the state deal with a crushing shortage of skilled workers.
"There is a disconnect in this state," he said, "between a heartbreaking unemployment rate of 8 percent and business people who can't find the qualified workers they need and want to hire."
It's a disconnect that must be addressed for the state to move forward. Pence's plan is based, he said, on a reality: Indiana is near the top when it comes to the number of workers who have only a high-school education. More needs to be done to make sure those Hoosiers emerge from their high school halls with more skills and, yes, more opportunities.
"There's a sense that there's a limitation here," he said, referring to those who seek a vocational route. Disputing that, he pointed to the large number of people "who started in vocational school and now employ hundreds of Hoosiers and are worth a fortune." He pointed to the wages earned by electricians and other skilled workers. And, he notes, many high-school grads who head straight in the workforce receive further education at some point, particularly if they have been able to secure good-paying skilled jobs with quality employers who want to see their workers grow.
Importantly, Pence is not demeaning those of us who want to see more Hoosiers enrolled in college; in fact, he counts himself among that group. He supports education reforms that have been enacted of late and hopes to expand on them. But each student is unique, he said, and a college-only mentality during the high-school years fails many of them. This is a state with not only a strong manufacturing tradition but also a strong manufacturing future. For many students that offers the right path to success.
Under Pence's plan, a series of regional councils would be created around the state next year. School, community and business leaders would conduct an inventory of the type of workers that a specific area's employers need, and the schools would develop curriculum aimed at meeting those needs, perhaps in conjunction with community colleges. In turn, the state would allow more classes, apprenticeships and other programs that meet those needs to count as school credits. It's about flexibility, Pence said, and treating the final year of high school as an opportunity to better prepare students for work, or their first year at a school such as Ivy Tech.
Some details remain, such as how much Pence is willing to invest in the program and whether employers would chip in. But the best thing about what Pence has offered so far is that it builds on the education reforms already under way in Indiana by tackling the problem from a different angle. At the same time, it meets an important need for the state.
"One of the remaining significant barriers to economic growth in Indiana is a well-skilled workforce," he said. ". . . The state that leads in bringing career, technical and vocational education back as a priority at the high school level will be the state the leads the way economically."
Pence has identified a problem that Indiana needs to address and he's offering a smart path forward. It's a welcome plan that would serve thousands of Indiana students well.
Of course, if Pence coupled his plan to improve the high school experience with a push to increase access to early-learning programs on the front end of a student's education career, he could claim one of the strongest education plans offered by a candidate for governor in generations.