Focus: Education

(Elkhart) Truth

The Hoosier state is facing tough issues in this ever-changing, ever-complicated global economy.

A lot of time has been spent by our politicians and media on a number of topics, some of which, especially lately, have pulled our attention away from perhaps the biggest economic issue. Access to education, and access to an educated, drug-free workforce, require more attention than they’ve been getting.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce issued its 2015 report card recently on how the state is doing on economic development outlined in its Indiana 2025 project. The 59 measures of 33 goals in four areas show that Indiana is improving on education but still has a way to go.

Of the 59 measures, Indiana has made progress since the 2013 report card. The state improved in 28 of them and declined in 19. In 12 categories, rankings stayed the same or there was no data to make a comparison, Indiana Chamber President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said.

Students made strides in reading, math and science test scores. Indiana even ranked fourth nationally on fourth-graders’ math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. On high school graduation rates, Indiana ranked eighth with 87 percent.

Where Indiana falls woefully short is in the percentage of population with a college degree. A mere 30.5 percent has an associate degree or higher, ranking 45th nationally, according to the report card’s quoting of census figures. Only 23.8 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, ranking 42nd.

In the 30-page report card, you won’t find mention of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that took effect. That was a big, unnecessary distraction for Indiana, according to Tom Schuman, vice president of communications for the chamber.

So were the battles over education between Glenda Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence and others over the State Board of Education, but not the issues that truly matter. “It’s unfortunate so much attention and time is spent on that and not on the other matters of how do we go about making sure that every child in the state has access to a quality education regardless of family income, regardless of circumstances,” Brinegar said.

Improving Indiana education starts with prekindergarten education. The chamber’s call for state support of preschool education, particularly for low-income families, is on target. A pilot program in five counties is in early stages. To expand the program statewide would cost an estimated $125 million annually, according to chamber officials. That’s a lot of money, but any investment in preschool education is a better one than having to pay an out-of-state public relations firm to fix the state’s image in the wake of RFRA.

Once young Hoosiers become full-fledged students, tracking their progress without testing them inordinately is proper. Having more students take on advanced courses during and after high school will help the state compete in the global marketplace. But so will fostering skills that allow them to blossom as entrepreneurs.

Ivy Tech Community College’s ability to train the workers this state needs, to help students educationally, is in question, and solving how it best serves the state is a huge priority.

Educating Indiana’s students in powerful ways and then creating an environment in which they want to stay, work and start businesses may be the best way to grow the state’s economy rather than endless tax abatements and trying to woo company headquarters to land here.

Brinegar also discussed what he’s hearing from employers about access to cheap, powerful drugs and how that’s hurting productivity. There’s more to fight than meth, and education and enforcement could help curb the problem.

The effort to build the economy and put more money in the pockets of its workers, its employers, isn’t done.

The state’s recovery from the Great Recession has been remarkable; but if the state’s economy is to grow, if its quality of life is to improve, it will need to find ways to build on the strengths but also diversify and advance on education.