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Urdahl: Education issues at the forefront

A few different issues pertaining to education arose recently at the Capitol, ranging from start dates, to K-12 funding and closing the skills gap in our workforce.

I have authored a bill to form a task force which would identify ways we can provide more students opportunities at our two-year vocational schools. We have been funneling too many students to four-year institutions over the years, leaving some people in mismatched career programming and creating a growing skills gap in our state.

There is a shortage of qualified employees in a variety of workforce sectors, especially manufacturing. A survey shows close to half of Minnesota business respondents (47 percent) had positions that were unfilled due to lack of qualified applicants, including 13 percent with 10 percent or more of jobs unfilled. These same respondents (53 percent) expect the skills gap to become even greater in the coming years.

The task force I am working to create would improve collaboration between K-12 educators, vocational schools and job creators to better prepare our future workforce with sought-after skills.

Meantime, a House committee has examined the details of Gov. Mark Dayton’s K-12 budget proposal. His bill would increase school spending by $344 million over the next two years with a $52 increase to the per-pupil funding formula. The governor also calls for $44 million to be used in providing opportunity scholarships or “vouchers” that empower parents to send their kids to early childhood programs of their choice.

Dayton’s proposal does not pay back $1.1 billion in delayed K-12 payments until 2017. It also does not provide contingency plans if sequestration – across-the-board federal budget cuts that may go into effect March 1 – takes place as many expect. I would like to see our eventual biennial budget plan do more to even out statewide funding inequities and close our broad achievement gap.

Another education-related issue involves a hearing for a bill to allow pre-Labor Day school starts. This issue has been going on for years and is, basically, a Greater Minnesota vs. Twin Cities metro scenario.

The issue of a pre-Labor Day start is most crucial in parts of the state where tourism is a major economic factor. Labor Day is one of the busiest travel weekends of the year in Minnesota and that one weekend makes a big difference in the bottom line for many businesses, not just resorts.

Explore Minnesota indicates tourism is an $11.9 billion industry in the state. Reports show Minnesota’s leisure and hospitality businesses employed nearly 240,000 people in 2011. This represents 11 percent of our total private-sector employment in 2011.

Starting school before Labor Day cuts into the number of families who are able to travel and also reduces the number of workers who are available to staff businesses during one of the biggest revenue weekends of the year. We are still trying to recover from the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression and cannot afford to create obstacles for the job creators, workers and consumers who are driving our resurgence.