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What State of the State Speeches Reveal about the State of Education

So far, this year’s State of the State addresses reveal that, when it comes to education, governors across the country will continue to prioritize workforce development. Here’s a look at five governors who specifically mentioned high school graduation rates in their speeches and how they plan to improve education for young people in their states.

President Trump gave his first State of the Union address last week, and with the exception of DACA, he left K-12 education and the challenges facing young people largely untouched.

In fact, his only mention of education came in the context of employment and workforce development. “As tax cuts create new jobs, let us invest in workforce development and job training,” he said. “Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential.”

The conversation has trended in the same direction at the state level. To date, 34 governors* have delivered their annual State of the State addresses, and governors of both parties framed the discussion in terms of workforce development and career readiness.

Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama (R) argued that “as workforce needs evolve, we must create educational opportunities that prepare our people to meet those needs,” and Governor Gina Marie Raimondo of Rhode Island (D) called on legislatures to “expand our job training initiatives and our technical training in high schools.”

Governor Raimondo of Rhode Island
Governor Raimondo of Rhode Island is one of several governors who focused on workforce development in their State of the State addresses.

Surprisingly few governors brought in a key data point to ground their agendas: high school graduation rates. Of the 34 addresses, nine governors mentioned graduation rates at least once and only five—Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, New Mexico —outlined a path toward improving education.

This represents a slight decrease from last year, which saw a dozen governors cite graduation rates, although—much like this year—only five laid out specific plans. (New Mexico’s Martinez (R) was the only governor to discuss graduation rates in detail in both 2017 and 2018.)

Here’s what five governors plan to focus on in 2018:

Iowa: Invest in STEM and Real-World Experience

Graduation Rate: 91.3 percent

Governor Kim Reynolds (R) began her speech with the proud announcement that Iowa’s high school graduation rate is the highest in the nation and what that means for the workforce: “We prepared our students for the jobs of tomorrow through work-based learning, pre-apprenticeship, and computer science programs.”

Despite this success, Reynolds acknowledged that Iowans cannot get complacent because “the demand of the workforce is changing, and our education system must change with it.”

Governor Reynolds said. Photo credit: Iowa Public Radio Images.
“[T]he demand of the workforce is changing, and our education system must change with it,” Governor Reynolds said. Photo credit: Iowa Public Radio Images.

To meet these changing demands, she said Iowa must continue to invest in STEM education and programs that offer youth real-world experience. These two pillars, Reynolds suggested, will put youth on the path to success by “mak[ing] the connection between education and a career.”

Kansas: Increase Teacher Pay, Add Counselors, and Offer Dual Credit

Graduation Rate: 85.7 percent

Governor Dale Brownback (R) was the only governor to set an explicit goal around grad rates: “We should reach a 95 percent statewide graduation rate.”

He proposed a series of specific initiatives, including increasing teacher pay, increasing number of school counselors and psychologists, offering dual credit coursework to high school students, and offering ACT college entrance examinations or World Keys assessments for free. Brownback’s proposals have generated pushback from fellow Republican legislators for omitting to explain how the state will pay for the proposed $600 million increase in funding for education.

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Brownback followed up his policy proposals with language that examined more closely the role school plays in the development of young people: “I dream that education in the state is tailored to each student’s needs and desires... I dream schools will be places of accomplishment, where students and parents choose to go: to learn, to achieve, and to be challenged. They will be character-forming places that back up the family and produce a stronger person. Where patriotism flourishes, civic duty is instilled and all students achieve.”

South Dakota: Expand Work-based Education

Graduation Rate: 83.9 percent

Governor Dennis Daugaard (R) focused on improving graduation rates by equipping young people with the knowledge they need to make decisions about their future. Through a program called “Career Launch,” Daugaard asked high schools “to expand the availability of work-based education experiences, such as apprenticeships, internships, or job shadowing during school. The best way for young people to learn about careers and find fields they like—or don’t like—is to experience them.”

A crucial piece of Daugaard’s workforce readiness plans involves cybersecurity, network services, and software development, which will connect youth to “in-demand, well-paying jobs.” This, Daugaard explained, “is an example of the type of work-based education that I hope will take root in South Dakota.”

Mississippi: Address Systemic Issues (Like Poverty), Expand Workforce

Graduation Rate: 82.3 percent

Mississippi’s high school graduation rate has risen above 80 percent, and Governor Phil Bryant (R) saw opportunities for improvement by focusing on the conditions that prevent kids from succeeding in school. Bryant hopes to address issues in education by focusing on health care, child welfare, mental health, and early childhood learning.

As he explained, “the reasons are systemic and often related to a variety of conditions.” Reasons why a student might be having difficulty include “poverty, abuse, neglect and lack of leadership.” Bryant has convened experts in a new State Early Childhood Advisory Council to tackle these issues. Of the State of the State addresses given to date, Bryant was unique in his discussion of the ways that systemic conditions affect student success.

Governor Bryant
Governor Bryant was one of the few governors who discussed systemic issues, like poverty, that impact student success.

Bryant’s position on career development reflects the national trend of taking on education as a workforce issue. Like other governors, Bryant intends to fund programs that will “increase graduation rates to the national average and build our workforce.”

New Mexico: Expand Adult Mentoring Programs, Anti-Truancy Efforts, and Early Reading Interventions

Graduation Rate: 71 percent

Governor Susana Martinez’s (R) State of the State also departed from the typical rhetoric of vocational training and career readiness in her discussion of graduation rates. While applauding New Mexico’s education system for an all-time high graduation rate of 71 percent, she noted that “our expectations are far higher.” (Despite recent improvements, New Mexico’s graduation rate remains the lowest in the country.)

To bolster student success across the board, Martinez outlined various initiatives and proposals, including “expanding our teacher and principal mentoring programs, anti-truancy efforts, and early reading interventions.”

Additionally, she emphasized programs that work to pull children out of poverty and equip them for success, like adding case-workers for high-risk families and offering school breakfasts. Martinez expressed her hope to “make New Mexico the best place to be a kid.”

*This story will be updated as governors continue to give State of the State addresses. For six concrete steps to raise graduation rates at the state level, read about our GradNation Action Platform in The Next Phase of the GradNation Campaign.