editorial (2007-10)

Restoring a Brainpower Advantage

Ways are opening to better educational opportunities in the state and nation

Restoring a Brainpower Advantage

Two very positive developments in the field of education this week give us hope that significant segments of state and federal government are looking at the future from a global perspective.

Gov. Phil Bredesen's Governor's Academy for Mathematics and Science will open this fall on the Tennessee School for the Deaf campus in Knoxville, with the cooperation and participation of the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

With UT and ORNL partnering in program development and teaching, a group of high school students who qualify for the specialized instruction will enter the academy. Plans are for 24 high school juniors, yet to be named, to study physics-based science, calculus-based math, the Chinese language and Tai Chi, an Asian martial art that instills concentration skills and a calm, measured approach to learning and the performance of daily tasks.

That new state program is a welcome addition to the secondary education picture here, and we would expect it to be expanded.

There may well be federal help in that regard in the future. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, former Tennessee governor and former president of UT, announced his sponsorship of legislation called the COMPETES Act, designed to strengthen educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math from the elementary school level through graduate school and to increase research investment through federal funding.

It is a bipartisan effort, with Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Harry Reid, D, Nev., on board, along with a host of influential senators from both sides of the aisle. Rather than refer the bill to committee, it is set to go straight to the Senate floor for debate and likely passage.

Both the Tennessee Governor's Academy and the federal U.S. COMPETES bill show a recognition that the economic future of United States depends on reinforcing what has been a brainpower advantage enjoyed by this country for decades but is seen to be eroding in the early years of the 21st century.

Alexander was called a driving force behind the legislation by Sen. McConnell, who said the Tennessee senator's unique background gave him a special ability to craft such a wide-ranging education bill. And Alexander himself termed the legislation and its cost, which was not specified, "a small pro-growth investment to build and economy that would help us keep our high standard of living and pay the bills for urgent national needs." He cited current spending levels of $2 billion a week in Iraq and $7 billion a week on our national debt as examples of federal expenditures that may give a hint at the education act's anticipated demands on the budget.

Would it be worth investment in that cost range? Certainly. In Tennessee, as elsewhere across the nation, it would provide scholarships for math and science teacher training and summer academies for existing math and science teachers, who would also be given support for advanced-placement teaching. It would support math and science specialty high schools, such as the governor's academy and would provide for middle- and high-school student internship programs at scientific research and technology centers across the state.

It would also increase research and development spending through federal agencies and institutions such as UT, ORNL and Vanderbilt, with the hope of generating new high-tech companies to invest in the state in the coming decade.

"There is no more important piece of legislation in Congress this year," Alexander said, and that is a thoroughly believable statement. Taking math and science opportunities up a notch or two for our young people may be the key--in fact the only way--to insure that our nation and state keep pace with similar investment strategies in other nations all around the world.

Those initiatives are signs that our governor and our senior senator recognize the competitive nature of the global economy and its demands on Americans. That recognition is still far from universal in this state, however.

As if to illustrate the fact of lingering myopia among our elected leaders in Nashville, there was the misanthropic gesture of a majority in the Tennessee state Senate who voted this week to authorize driver's license testing only in English. That sort of naked xenophobic thinking and action serves to thwart international or multi-national businesses from considering the state for investment.

The stupid measure surely will be killed in the House, but it says something about our lawmakers' lack of understanding of the inevitability of further globalization and its effects on the people and the economy of the United States.