Back to school sales are on and parents are shopping for the crayons, calculators and other supplies their kids will need for the first day of classes. Before long school buses will be on the roads and college campuses will be abuzz with students returning for the fall semester. Private schools will welcome back students with chapel or mass and families that home school will resume study.

As the school year begins it’s a good time to reflect on how our schools are performing. Nebraska’s support of education remains consistently high. Nebraskans spend more per pupil each year than all neighboring states except Wyoming. While our financial commitment is high, we have more work to do to improve educational outcomes. Globally, the U.S. finds itself in the middle of the pack on test scores. As assessed by ACT/SAT scores, Nebraska ranks in the middle of the pack (No. 28) nationally for college readiness. We’re paying close attention to the quality of education in our public schools and working to expand school choice to help kids achieve their dreams.

Of course, education involves more than standardized tests, as important as these are. Through teaching history and political science, we can also help students gain appreciation of the principles, sacrifices and reforms that have given rise to our cherished political liberties. For instance, Nebraska played a significant role in America’s suffrage movement with a major campaign taking place from 1881-82 to give women the right to vote in our state. Though unsuccessful in the short-run, the effort built support for women’s suffrage across Nebraska. By the time Nebraska’s Legislature voted on the 19th amendment in August 1919 (over 100 years ago), it received unanimous support. We want Nebraskans to learn the story of these major moments in history so that they enter adulthood with the ability to make informed judgments about the future of our state and country. 

Earlier this year, Sen. Julie Slama championed a much-needed update to our state’s civics education. It guarantees students will study American heroes like Standing Bear, Susan B. Anthony and Abraham Lincoln. It also ensures that students will learn the patriotic songs that have become part of our national culture and develop proper respect for our country’s flag. Along the way, they will learn about what made America great as well as the challenges we’ve faced in becoming a more perfect union. It’s vital that we do our part to pass on our principles and system of republican self-government to the next generation.

We also need to prepare Nebraskans to excel in today’s economy. As a state, we’ve already developed a strong work ethic. According to a July report from the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee, Nebraska has the highest employment-to-population ratio in the U.S. In other words, a greater percentage of Nebraskans contribute to the economy than in any other state. Nebraskans are ready and willing to work and they put in the sweat needed to succeed. We’re working hard, but we can learn to work smarter. Practically, this means educating and equipping Nebraskans with the know how to perform in-demand manufacturing, technology and bioscience jobs. These jobs produce high-value goods and services, and they pay well. 

In light of our strong labor market, we’re in the enviable position of being able to focus attention on helping Nebraskans find better, higher-paying jobs (as opposed to merely finding any old job). Education is the key to making this happen. That’s why I launched the Developing Youth Talent Initiative (DYTI) in 2015 to spark interest in careers in IT and manufacturing. DYTI fosters partnerships between private industry and public schools to promote hands-on career exploration and skills development for students in seventh and eighth grade.

Since DYTI began, we’ve awarded grants in communities such as Broken Bow, Hastings, Hebron, Kearney, Omaha, Scottsbluff and York. We track the outcomes of these grants and DYTI has consistently increased knowledge and interest in manufacturing and IT careers among middle schoolers. For example, MetalQuest of Hebron partnered with Sandy Creek and Lawrence Nelson Public Schools through DYTI in 2016. Before the program only 39 percent of students reported being interested in a career in manufacturing. After the program around 75 percent expressed interest in a manufacturing career. So far 7,000 students have participated in DYTI. On July 1, we awarded new grants that will add as many as 4,600 students and two dozen school districts to DYTI. 

From helping our kids understand their heritage to connecting them to great career opportunities, I would value your input on how to give parents more choice in how they educate their kids. If you have thoughts, please email me at pete.ricketts@nebraska.gov or call 402-471-2244.

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