Glenn Hamer

I’m writing this week from Washington, D.C., where I find myself snowed-in. I was supposed to be home Wednesday night, but Mother Nature had other plans. I’m now more familiar with Reagan National Airport’s dining options than I ever thought I would be.

But the snowstorm has given me plenty of time to think, and I couldn’t help but reflect on President Obama’s State of the Union speech from Tuesday night.

Like any State of the Union, the president’s speech contained a little bit of everything. He discussed government spending, the deficit and his pledge to veto spending bills containing earmarks. He touched on the complicated tax code, and called for simplifying the corporate-tax code, which was a welcome olive branch from the White House to the business community, which has so far had a frosty relationship with the president.

But what made me take notice and draw a clear connection to what’s happening in Arizona was the president’s focus on education, and what he called a “Sputnik moment.”

The president said, “Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us — as citizens, and as parents — are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.”

The president then went on to make the case that Race to the Top should be the roadmap that we as a nation follow to raise our educational standards. Race to the Top was a two-phase competitive federal grant fund that rewarded states for reform plans that prepare students for success in college and the workplace, builds data systems that track student growth and success, and recruits and retains top teachers.

Gov. Brewer has already identified Race to the Top as a key element of her recently announced education reform plan, which is the second cornerstone of her Four Cornerstones of Reform policy agenda. Gov. Brewer’s goal is to turn the state’s Race to the Top application into a reform plan with goals and yearly benchmarks for increased student achievement, improved graduation rates and increased post-secondary success.

One of the drivers of the governor’s education reform efforts is her chief of staff Eileen Klein. Having met Eileen years ago on a school reform issue and having worked with her when she chaired the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Public Affairs Committee, I can’t think of a more passionate champion for education reform to confront this challenge for Gov. Brewer.

The governor’s plan answers the president’s call to improve our data systems for tracking student performance over time. She pulls no punches in her plan when she calls the state’s current education data system “unreliable and out-of date.” Her fiscal year 2012 budget includes a plan to fund a new data system and oversee its development, with the goal of being able to measure accurately and reliably the performance of students, teachers and schools.

Some of the statistics out there are downright scary. If you saw George Will’s latest column, he cites OECD data that show that only four other member nations have high school dropout rates worse than America’s. They’re great tourist destinations, but we don’t want to be sharing such close company in the educational realm with Mexico, Spain, Turkey and New Zealand.

The states can be the laboratories for real educational success. While the federal government can set the standard we want to meet, the states can decide how to get there. As Will points out, 50 state-level approaches to education reform “might yield a few that are truly superior.”

Arizona has made significant reforms already. Our state is a leader in the school-choice movement, we’ve overhauled teacher tenure laws and we’ve instituted easy-to-understand school rankings using letter grades. But the governor should be applauded for recognizing that so much more needs to be done to prepare our state’s students to be tomorrow’s workforce.

I’ve used this space many times to remind policymakers that businesses give a hard look at our state’s education system when deciding whether to make or increase their investment in Arizona. That talented engineer that an aerospace company wants to recruit here might be a parent, and he or she will likely consider what kind of educational options will be available to his or her kids. Our education system can be a deal maker, or deal breaker.

There are a lot of ingredients that go into the recipe for a successful economic strategy. Gov. Brewer isn’t leaving a world-class education system out of the mix.

Glenn Hamer is president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry