For visiting Democrats, education is a big topic |

For visiting Democrats, education is a big topic

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times
Six Democratic governors took part in a panel discussion Saturday at the Aspen Institute as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series. From left, moderator Walter Isaacson sits with Gov. Jay Nixon, of Missouri; Gov. Martin O'Malley, of Maryland; Gov. Maggie Hassan, of New Hampshire; Gov. Peter Shumlin, of Vermont; Gov. Mark Dayton, of Minnesota and Gov. John Hickenlooper, of Colorado.
Michael McLaughlin/The Aspen Times |

Last week it was the Republicans; on Saturday, it was the Democrats’ turn.

A panel of six Democratic governors talked about improving education in America at the Aspen Institute Saturday as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series. On July 24, a panel of Republican governors took part in the series, as well.

The Democratic panel consisted of Gov. Jay Nixon, of Missouri; Gov. Martin O’Malley, of Maryland; Gov. Maggie Hassan, of New Hampshire; Gov. Peter Shumlin, of Vermont; Gov. Mark Dayton, of Minnesota; and Gov. John Hickenlooper, of Colorado.

For the first half-hour, the governors talked about the importance of early education, the need for a more rigorous high school curriculum and continuing education that directly feeds students into the American workforce.

“How can a person coming from a family of seven, from a poor farm, make it into the workforce if we can’t keep the cost of higher education almost free?” asked host Walter Isaacson, the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute.

“You can’t,” Nixon said. “You’ve got to make sure college is affordable. If the choice is debt or progress, especially for nontraditional students, too often they’ll choose to continue with the job they’re on or continue underperforming. The bottom line is it’s one of the significant problems I think we have in this country. It’s impeding access and passing debt on to another generation.”

O’Malley talked about educational success in Maryland and pointed to a period almost 10 years ago when achievement levels spiked upward in his state.

“Those levels jumped after we went to full-day kindergarten throughout our state,” O’Malley said. “I was mayor of Baltimore at that time and I saw our first- and second-graders — for the first time ever — score above the national average in reading and math. We’ve expanded a whole ecosystem of that pre-K learning and development. In the last seven years, we’ve moved from 61 percent of our kids entering kindergarten ready to learn to 83 percent.”

Shumlin said the next big push for early education will focus on kids ages 3 and younger.

“All the research suggests that that’s where you really want to spend you dollars,” he said. “If we can get our kids into really good day care, or preschool, all the research suggests that the results, in terms of payback and the confidence it gives these kids to succeed, is immeasurable.”

Hickenlooper pointed out that in Denver, they put together a 21/2-year task force on early-childhood education and said they recognized it was probably the best dollar they could invest.

“We passed a 0.12 (percent) sales tax to get every at-risk 4-year-old a high-quality education,” he said. “We also started the Denver scholarship program. No matter how little money a family has, that will not keep them from going to college. Last year, we added $100 million to higher education. A big chunk of that was to begin that kind of a scholarship program. If you work hard enough to get through college, we’ll make sure you don’t leave with a bunch of debt.”

The governors all agreed that it was critical to provide better avenues to learn science, math and new technologies.

Hassan brought up how one school in New Hampshire is focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics classes and now is adding arts to that program, which is similar to what is taught in the Aspen School District.

“Employers need highly technically skilled people, but they have to be creative, too,” she said. “If you don’t have art education, you’re not helping with that at all.”

Isaacson brought up the international dependence on Russian oil and gas and asked Hickenlooper if that changed his thinking about unconventional sources of energy, such as hydraulic fracturing.

Hickenlooper replied that using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has unleashed inexpensive natural gas that will be available for decades. He said the hard part is guaranteeing neighborhoods that the practices will be safe.

“We’re making the gas companies check their wells every month for methane or natural-gas leakage,” he said. “The old leakage fine was $500 a day; now it’s $10,000 a day. I guarantee if you want to get an industry’s attention, you make it that expensive and they will fix it.”

O’Malley said western Maryland sits on top of a portion of the Marcellus Shale, which has natural-gas resources within it.

“Other states went ahead without as much consideration as we are,” O’Malley said. “We’re in the midst of a study right now to achieve that gold standard, the highest environmentally responsible standard, for the extraction of natural gas. I believe that American natural gas could well be a bridge to a much cleaner energy future. Whether it’s a bridge or an excuse not to do more is up to all of us.”

The discussion ended with a question about the importance of creative arts in the U.S. education system.

“I believe we need more art and music in our classrooms,” O’Malley said. “The more we put art and music in our classrooms, the better our kids do in science, math and reading. I’ve seen it. Every time we’ve restored a music program in our schools, the kids performed better. They behave better and came to school more often. This isn’t rocket science; this is humanity.”