by Bruce Dunlavy       (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

Ohio Governor John Kasich ran for president last year touting the “Ohio Miracle,” whereby his leadership, he claimed, reinvigorated and transformed an agglomeration of disintegrating Rust Belt cities, dying small towns, and economically traumatized rural areas into a renewed powerhouse of economic success.  The Kasich plan as implemented, however, consisted of little more than tax cuts for corporations and rich people offset by slashing State aid to schools, public universities, municipalities, and other local governments, leaving them to make up the losses in local taxes and higher fees.

This year, having failed to stop the Trump Train, Kasich is back to being a governor in his last two years before being term-limited out of office.  Suddenly, as he plans the next biennial budget, everything has changed.  Ohio is back to being in economic decline, which will require more austerity at the State level and more tax cuts – either because the previous ones worked, or because the previous ones didn’t work (he hasn’t said which).

Adopting the default position of conservative politicians and thinkers since the late 1970s, Kasich has announced that the reason Ohio is in such a sorry state is that it has not done enough to “run government like a business.”  You can read my thoughts on that notion here.

After going through the prescribed run of “cut taxes, cut regulations, cut spending,” Kasich has put a new twist on the concept of running government like a business, namely, businesspeople know what is best for everyone else. Of course – as we used to say down home – “it stands to reason” that if government works best when run like a business, that those who run businesses are best equipped to direct the course of government and to determine the mission of government services.

To this end Kasich has included in his new two-year budget proposal a plan that will turn the direction of education in the State.  There are three main parts to the scheme, although only one is getting much attention.  That one is a plan to require all teachers seeking renewal of their licenses to complete an externship that would consist of shadowing a local businessperson (presumably during the summer months, when teachers have plenty of free time).  The purpose of this would be to give the teachers insight into what kinds of things they should be teaching so that students would be better prepared to get jobs upon leaving school.

There are two other parts to the plan intended to reinforce the notion that “business knows best.”  The first is that every public school board must include three (non-voting) “business leaders”; the second is that students should be given academic credit for working at jobs outside of school and for time spent on “career exploration.” These would certainly have a greater impact on Ohio’s educational system that the teacher-extern program. Significantly, they underscore a disturbing trend in America’s view of education – that school is job training and college is trade school. Education be damned; let’s make sure people are trained.  In Kasich’s words, the function of a public educational system is to “guide students toward the in-demand jobs in their region.” In other words, just ask local business leaders what they are looking for and train the nearby students to fill those roles.
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For those students who do not plan to immediately enter the workforce, Kasich hopes that the job-directing aspects of his public education innovations will steer students away from “useless degrees” that do not prepare students for immediate entry into the workforce.  Yes, even at the university level, Kasich’s concept of education is identical with his concept of “workforce development.”  Of course, that is a short-sighted notion.  Preparing students for existing jobs is not a forward-thinking plan; preparing students for flexibility and continuous learning and adaptation is.

The stories of the philosophy major driving a taxi or the art history major delivering pizzas while the engineer and the accountant are already on the job making money immediately after graduation is an old device. But life is not a one-inning ballgame.  Where will these people be in ten or twenty years?  It’s hard to say, but a look at history should inform us.

The United States was created by educated men. The Founding Fathers all spent their educational years studying “useless” fields such as Classics and Literature.  Perhaps the Declaration of Independence would have been a more powerful statement of purpose if Thomas Jefferson has gotten his MBA instead of wasting all that time studying philosophy.  Maybe the Constitution would be a superior document had James Madison studied Business Administration instead of Political Science, History, and those other “useless” pursuits.

Kasich is following in the footsteps of his fellow failed presidential candidate and governor, Scott Walker of Wisconsin.  In his State’s budget proposal, Walker tried to sneak through a demolition of the celebrated “Wisconsin Idea.”  The application of the Wisconsin Idea to education specified that the State university system’s mission is “to solve problems and improve health, quality of life, the environment and agriculture for all citizens of the state.”  Often this is expressed in the sentence, “The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.”

Walker’s change would have altered the university system’s charge to read “to meet the State’s workforce needs,” a fatuous and cynical concept.  A governor’s attempting to gut a magnificent, century-old statement of purpose to make it say that the reason you have public higher education is to supply workers for corporations is a sad commentary on the responsibility of elected officials to the future.

The Kasich plan, like the Walker plan, is rooted in the idea of money as an end in itself.  If we turn our educational system into a mill for producing worker bees whose sole purpose in life is “to meet the . . . workforce needs [of ] business leaders,” we are writing a recipe for stagnation and a diminished quality of life.  There is a reason why we created public education in the first place, and it was that the nation had seen the results of early exposure of young people to the work force. And apprenticing five-year-old kids to work in mines and factories was not creating the kind of society we wanted.

I do not want to return to those days when young people were regarded as no more than workers or future workers with value only insofar as they could fill “workforce needs.”  Somebody needs some experience externing in another’s world, all right.  More value could be gained from having politicians and business leaders extern with teachers.