Galesburg's economic plight is national news. Articles in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, both distributed and syndicated nationwide, have made Maytag's closing a story that's attracted interested on both coasts. A New York filmmaker wants to produce a documentary showing how several working families cope to the end of the plant and beyond. Vermont's Independent Congressman, Bernie Sanders, wrote a column about free trade, based largely on Maytag's announcement, which he sent to us. It appears on page 8.
It is time now for Galesburg to look past the bad news and try to change the future. We have had some suggestions from readers worth repeating and I am presenting a major, innovative plan for Galesburg's future in this column.
One reader points out that the big problem of job loss in America will not be solved until this nation adopts universal health coverage to lift the burden of providing that off American businesses. It would help level the playing field with much of the world. She also says that rules should be implemented requiring products sold in this country be produced under similar conditions to those in the U.S. That would include paying living wages, requiring safe workplaces, protecting the environment and so on. Those terms already apply, for the most part, to western Europe and Japan and American industry is very competitive vis à vis those locales.
Ultimately, as the standard of living and wages increase in Mexico, as it already has in Canada, Japan and Europe, the advantage to moving jobs south decreases. Unfortunately, there will always be someplace with people willing to work for less. Mexico -- last year alone -- lost 3 million jobs to China. There's much of the continent of Africa with billions of people without jobs and money waiting to be exploited by American businesses.
Another reader requested that The Zephyr open up its pages to become a forum for job creation. He wants us to encourage our readers to voice their ideas about creating local jobs that pay a living wage. As of now, we are open. If you have an idea of any kind, send it in and we'll publish it. If you know of a company looking to expand, we'll forward your tip to the people best able to follow through. We cannot expect a few paid workers hired to promote economic development to know what's going on in every industry and in every location. But, with your ideas and your tips, we might be able to latch on to something.
Unfortunately, this loss of America's manufacturing base means that the era of good wages for unskilled and semi-skilled work is over. There are no railroading jobs for the uneducated and untrainable. There are no manufacturing jobs, in any new plant at least, where education and training isn't a prerequisite. To perform the jobs that will remain in this country, skills and education will be necessary. While that does leave a large number of people unemployable -- and Galesburg has its share -- economic growth is going to come from attracting industry that will hire people with the skills and training we can provide.
Or, with this bold plan I am proposing, economic and population growth could come our way -- by making Galesburg a more desirable place to live.
Before I expand, I'd like to go over a few assumptions. Eric Voyles, Executive Director of GREDA (The Galesburg Area Regional Economic Development Association) told me that once a community meets the basic requirements for a business looking to expand, other factors enter into the equation -- not the least of which are quality-of-life issues. Companies want to grow where their employees want to live and will be contented. At the top of the desirability list is education measured by the quality of the local schools.
Also, and very related, is the observation that about the only two professions dearly in need of workers -- and projected to need large numbers of them in the future -- are health care and teaching. A spokesman for Carl Sandburg College, which will be expected to retrain former Maytag workers, told me that health care is about the only field in which they can train people and almost guarantee them a job. Unfortunately, not many factory workers are interested or inspired to redirect their lives in that direction.
Also related is the observation that among downstate communities, none stand out as having a truly exceptional public school system. A few small places, such as Dunlap, have made a name for themselves in education circles, but among the communities we often compete with for new jobs, none stand out. Many, including Galesburg's, are considered adequate. Galesburg even had two, of only a handful statewide, of "golden spike" elementary schools but there is nothing to make our school system a major factor in attracting new businesses and residents.
My proposal changes all that.
Essentially, I am proposing that the entire Galesburg school system become a lab school and the program for training teachers be changed. Galesburg would become a mecca for teacher training in Illinois. The Galesburg public schools would be known as innovative and high quality.
Other lab schools are much smaller and have a select group of students, usually already motivated with parents who are, too. Galesburg's would be unique in that it would include every student -- from the top performers to the special kids. Galesburg has a diverse population and a diverse student body. That makes it an ideal "test market." We would encourage textbook firms and others to provide materials and curriculums to be used throughout the district. Methods and books could be compared to each other among diverse populations. Professors and students at Knox and Carl Sandburg colleges would devise methods for evaluating the different approaches and reporting on successes and failures -- and even which methods may work better with which students.
But our students wouldn't just be guinea pigs. They would have the advantage of more interaction with teachers and future teachers. A new teacher training program would be developed between Knox and Carl Sandburg colleges that flip-flops the standard approach. Future teachers would be in the classroom almost immediately, not as an official student teacher, but as a an education student. While they take their first years of college at Sandburg, which would offer many of the required education courses, students would get experience immediately working with kids and seeing if they like it and if the kids like them. Some will be weeded out of the program early but that's much better than waiting until after they've invested nearly four years in it. The final two years would be spent at Knox (or Monmouth College) where the future teacher would be taking the coursework necessary for a bachelor's degree and in their area of specialization.
The cost, since two years would be at Sandburg, would be reduced from that of a four-year college. The training and coursework would be designed and scheduled to meet state certification standards while providing time for students to be in the public school classrooms regularly.
There are districts across America willing to pay for teacher training for students willing to commit to teaching there for a certain number of years. We could tap into that funding, also.
If successful, this program could attract dozens, if not hundreds, of aspiring teachers to the area. That's another economic development boost.
Galesburg schools benefit by getting new ideas and approaches into the classrooms and a much greater involvement between teachers, future teachers and students. The college students in the classrooms could be great role models for the kids, especially in high school, where the age difference would be minimal. Existing teachers and administrators would have to be flexible and willing to test new concepts and ideas but they would also be part of the process for deciding what to implement where and for halting the use of methods that aren't working before any students are left behind.
Carl Sandburg College would have to offer the required education courses; there are several people in the area qualified to teach them -- including at least two former school superintendents. They would also have to develop a system for monitoring their students and evaluating their performance in the classroom.
Knox College would have to work closely with Carl Sandburg College in developing a program to turn out quality, well-rounded teachers. If that meant that a different set of course requirements be implemented for teacher training than their regular students meet, that would have to be addressed.
I have talked with presidents Roger Taylor of Knox College and Tom Schmidt of Carl Sandburg College, both of whom would be intimately involved with the plan and with each other. Both are interested in pursuing the idea further. I have talked with current District #205 superintendent Gary Harrison and incoming superintendent Neil Sappington and both see real potential in the concept.
It's a bold step but one that may have some real side benefits. If others see merit in the proposal, it may be time to get everyone together and see what the next step might be.