By Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh
As I travel around our great state listening to thousands of Alabamians talk about the things near and dear to their hearts, I am filled with hope. Alabama is a wonderful state with so much potential. We have smart, hardworking, God-fearing people, and we can do anything when we put our minds to it.
A brighter Alabama is on the horizon. But we need to invest now in order to secure a better future. There are numerous steps we need to take, including fixing our run-down roads and bridges, maintaining our navigable waterways, and bringing broadband to all areas of our state, but we cannot achieve anything without drastic improvements in education.
For far too long, Alabama has ranked nearly last in the country in education. Our children are our most valuable resources, and they deserve nothing less than the absolute best. It is well past time that we turn things around and compete for number one instead of settling for forty-eighth. We need an educational renaissance in our state.
We must ensure that our children are equipped with a top-notch education so that they can compete in a modern, global economy and prepare them to secure good, high-paying jobs.
This summer, Governor Kay Ivey announced a major step on our road to educational excellence in Alabama. The new policy initiative, “Strong Start, Strong Finish,” focuses on three key phases of education: 1) early childhood, 2) computer science in middle school and high school, and 3) workforce preparedness. I fully support this important new initiative and will do everything I can to help “Strong Start, Strong Finish” flourish.
It all begins with the period from pre-K through third grade. We cannot allow students to fall behind in this early phase of education because these formative years are vital layers of foundation for everything to follow. We must ensure every child in Alabama has a solid base that allows for seamless development and learning; the goal is that one year’s learning will be reinforced and built upon in the next year until our children are properly prepared to fill a job of their choice. As a state, we must continue to expand our First Class Pre-K program and strive for reading proficiency levels that lead the nation in this early stage of education. A strong start is integral to everything that follows. The next stage, “CS for AL,” focuses on a cohesive, statewide expansion of computer science education. Today, our state has over 4,600 unfilled computer science jobs, and this sector is poised to grow significantly in the coming decade. These jobs have a high average annual salary of $82,000, but Alabama is not preparing a workforce to meet the industry’s needs. A unified emphasis on computer science and STEM education will help recruit new businesses, lower unemployment, and equip our children with the skills to compete in a modern economy.
By 2020, 62 percent of available jobs in Alabama will require some type of post-secondary education. I like to call this the “13th grade.” Whether it is a certificate, credential, 2-year college degree, or a 4-year degree, our children will need the 13th grade to compete for quality, high-paying jobs. Right now, only 37 percent of our workforce meets this criterion. This is nowhere near good enough, so focusing on a strong finish to our children’s education is much-needed for not only our families but Alabama’s economy, too.
For some of our students, that means a college degree from one of our world-class colleges or universities, but for many, it means getting a technical certification or job training. Workforce development programs, technical schools, public-private partnerships, and dual enrollment programs with local community colleges will prepare our children for good, high-paying jobs and make Alabama an attractive place to start or grow a business. The bottom line is that each child should be equipped for and allowed to choose his or her own path to success.
I am proud of the work that Governor Ivey is doing for our state. But it is going to take a strong team-effort to keep Alabama surging forward to brighter days. I firmly believe education is the key to our future and will pay large dividends down the road. Let’s all get behind “Strong Start, Strong Finish” and ignite an educational renaissance right here in Alabama.
Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, the President of the Alabama Public Service Commission. Opinions expressed do not represent the position of the Public Service Commission or its other commissioners.