Globalization has come to every hometown, every school and every workplace, but students and workers are not given the tools to keep up, governors reluctantly agreed Tuesday.
It's past time for a sweeping transformation of education, worker training and economic development, governors said, ending a four-day National Governors Association's meeting with a call for a national commitment to change.
Everyone talks about globalization and international competition, but it's time for concerted action, said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. The changes are "under our feet. On the ground under us, right now," she said.
Governors set out a framework for what they termed innovation, and hope to get federal support to include their ideas in legislation now in Congress on work force training, education, and research and development. Among the ideas:
— Refocus on science, technology, engineering, math and foreign language proficiency. They are seeking programs to encourage students and teachers in those subject matters.
— Make worker training more flexible, coordinate training with regional needs and make progress measurable.
— Create federal "competitive innovation grants" to encourage states to develop regional hubs that build on existing strengths, like computer development in North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham area.
The aim is more skilled students and workers, higher-paying jobs, and a more vibrant economy.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told governors Tuesday that the demands of competitiveness were going to drive improvements in energy and health care, but that they won't come without costs and turmoil.
"Our companies can't keep up in the world if their health care costs are too much. The pressures of competitiveness" will force change, he said.
The key is improving education, and to align it better with the needs of business so students come out of high schools, community colleges, vocational schools and higher universities with the knowledge for today's business world, said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat.
"We are really falling far behind other countries in the world with our skill set for workers," she said.
Students in many other industrial countries are better educated than American students, said William H. Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor who studies education.
By the end of eighth grade students elsewhere are two years ahead of American students, he said. "These children, we're putting them at a disadvantage. This makes it more than an economic issue, it makes it a moral issue," Schmidt said.
Meetings over the four-day conference hammered the point. School teachers, business leaders, scientists, pollsters all delivered the same message — overhaul school curriculums, retrain workers and revamp economic development so that businesses build upon each other, rather than pit one state against another.
They heard from Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway; Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration; President Bush's top trade negotiator, Susan Schwab, and many more.
Governors sought support for more federal help from Alexander and Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Science Committee.
But the biggest challenge is changing the mindset of the country, said Rhode Island GOP Gov. Don Carcieri, so that people embrace everything from the math and science skills needed to work in the 21st century to the larger changes needed in health care and energy.
"There's a a huge sense of urgency about this," Carcieri said. Scientists are "the brainpower for all of our nation's capacities ... I'm frustrated about how we communicate that and how drive it."