Monday, April 23, 2007

When businesses buy, they want results 

In his weekly signed editorial, St. Cloud Times editorial page editor Randy Krebs is asking what businesses are willing to pay for education.

For the past several years I have regularly heard from leaders of influential business groups that among the biggest challenges they face in Minnesota is a shortage of qualified workers.

Now it seems logical to me that this shortage must be at least partially due to the state's education system. After all, Minnesota businesses essentially hire people after they have had adequate education and training, the bulk of which comes from the state's birth-to-12 and higher education systems.

So if this system is not providing these workers, I would think businesses would be among the loudest voices calling for the state to amend its education system so that potential job applicants are qualified, so they can be hired, so those businesses can have the best chance at succeeding.

It is true that businesses complain about the lack of qualified workers. I've said it myself, both on this blog and in various issues of the Quarterly Business Report. (Full disclosure: Randy's paper publishes the report.) Though I again warn people that what businesses mean often when they talk about qualified workers includes problem-solving skills that don't come from formal education (a few manufacturers say they look for young people from farm backgrounds, where improvisation is a necessity), and often about basic skills like showing up for work on time, dressing neatly, etc. It isn't necessarily about K-12 education.

But surely part of it is. And businesses HAVE been among the loudest voices. And they do pay more. The problem is that what you want in return is accountability. Where is the evidence that these additional dollars spent (per student, inflation adjusted) have produced better results? If they haven't, why haven't they. Krebs asks,

And while I'm not so na�ve to believe "more money" is the main answer to what ails education, I've also had enough recent school experiences to see that this state is trying to provide a 21st century education using a funding engine built in the 20th century.

Indeed, if businesses want to avoid a tax increase so badly, how come they are not lobbying so intensely (if at all) to amend state funding formulas to improve outcomes?

You know if their businesses had such problems they would make changes.

They would, but having devoted so much money to this outcome, they might have decided adding money isn't the problem. They might have chosen to reallocate dollars. Perhaps you will not find the analogy so apt, but I see this quite like Jim Souhan's piece on the Vikes and Wolves: You can't spend more money and hope that fixes the problem.

Businesses are willing to invest money to solve a problem when they are convinced that the money spent will actually solve the problem. We spend more and more dollars and get more and more mediocrity. At some point, like the Twins or the Wild, you decide that's enough and time to go in a different direction. Last I looked, those were the teams in the playoffs.

When you get results like this, the answer shouldn't be to bury an income tax increase in the education bill.

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