On Monday, 2/25/13, the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee will hold an informational hearing on the “STEM Task Force Report” (here) and a public hearing on HB 2636 (creating a STEM Investment Council and allocating $50 million for the biennium, here). It is not clear from the Committee’s agenda who will be testifying. If I were on the Committee I would ask the following questions of bill supporters:
Why is strengthening STEM educational programs more important for Oregon’s economic future than strengthening foreign language programs? Why spend $50 million per biennium on STEM programs and zero on high school study abroad program? And zero on more Mandarin immersion programs?
How does expanding student internet access and creating more opportunities for students to receive credit for online STEM courses (both K-12 and higher ed) fit with the priorities of the STEM Investment Council? And what should be the relative investment priorities between grants to expand broadband access and other STEM initiatives?
How do the STEM initiatives fit with the career and technical education initiatives and other initiatives to give students hands-on technology related learning experiences?
First, I do think the legislature needs to target some educational funding to create needed changes. Just allocating more money through the State School Fund distribution formula will not produce the educational changes Oregon needs. But they need to be targeted at clear educational and economic development priorities.
Second, STEM programs do need to become stronger. Some funding can produce innovation and change. But $50 million seems like too much. I saw one news report of $13 million for STEM in the Governor’s budget (here). Even that seems a bit too high. Perhaps $2-6 million for the biennium.Third, the Joint Interim Task Force on STEM Access and Success Report recommends that Oregon “make the appropriate infrastructure enhancements to provide reliable broadband internet access and online delivery system, both in school and at home, to all P-20 students.” This too deserves significant funding. Perhaps in the $5-10 million for the biennium. This needs further investigation and discussion.
Fourth, there is an overlap in creating stronger STEM programs and stronger foreign language programs. In Portland Public Schools, 20% of the parents of kindergarteners now apply for foreign language immersion programs. Only 10% get in because, in part, there are too few qualified teachers. So there is a general need for lots more immersion teachers in a variety of languages. Further, as immersion programs expand and grow into upper grades, there is a need for STEM teachers fluent in the immersion languages. There is no reason to invest a lot of funding in upgrading current English speaking STEM teachers when what the future will require is STEM teachers who can teach in specific foreign languages.
And fifth, funding both high school study abroad and more Mandarin immersion programs should have equal priority with funding STEM programs. For every dollar earmarked for STEM, I would earmark dollars for high school student abroad and Mandarin expansion. The non-profit study abroad organization ASSE (once called the American Scandinavian Student Exchange) has offices in 31 countries and handles over 30,000 students annually. They tend to have low cost programs. Their fees for a high school year abroad range from $4,950 (Mexico) to $9,600 (Japan, Mexico). Their fee for a high school year in China (covering tuition, room & board with a family, and international transportation) is $8,300. At $9,000 each, each $1 million allocated for high school study abroad could send 111 Oregon high school students abroad for a high school year.
And sixth, I recognize how politically hard it is to allocate education dollars for specific purposes, especially related to any changes. There is enormous political pressure from the status-quo educational establishment just to put more money into the existing system. STEM programs do have a political base that foreign language programs lack. But both are important. Fight on!