Other countries prepare their students to leave high school prepared for college. They do it right the first time. We don't get it.

American businesses get it. When faced with having to compete in a global economy, they quickly restructured themselves. They knew they had to get it right the first time or go out of business. Globalization has made it possible for all nations to compete in today's flat world. Other nations, such as China and India, get it. They are fast surpassing the United States with a greater proportion of their people entering the work force with the equivalent of a high school diploma. Thirty years ago, we had 30 percent of the world's college students; today, we have 14 percent and continue to fall, according to the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. We have a choice: "Tough choices or tough times." It's the title of a new report to the nation.

Seventeen years ago, the first Skills Commission issued a report, "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages." It warned that in order for the United States to reverse the trend of low wages, it had to adopt "international benchmarked education standards" for its students. Now, the New Skills Commission has released a new report, "Tough Choices or Tough Times." It's sobering. It warns that America's quality of life will decline unless it restructures its education system for today's economy.

The New Skills Commission includes two former Labor Department secretaries, Bill Brock and Ray Marshall, along with former secretaries of education, labor and corporate CEOs, who headed the two-year study that offers creative solutions to get America's education and training systems responsive to the new economic challenges. The commission wants the report to start a national dialogue on the solutions it sees necessary if we are to reclaim our eminence in the new global economy.

This Wednesday and Thursday, co-chairman of the commission, Bill Brock, along with staff, will be in Salt Lake City to meet with the Utah Senate Education Committee members, the governor and key staff, as well as business, union leaders and teacher unions, to brief them on the recommendations in the commission's "Tough Choices or Tough Times" report.

Among the bold recommendations: teachers should get higher pay up front; help should be given to students who are ready to move on to college as early as the 10th grade; school financing should be controlled by states rather than local districts; and schools might best be operated by independent contractors, such as teachers and parents.

The report is intended to give state leaders a set of recommendations for reforming education and training systems for today's economy. They should be seen as a comprehensive package of ideas rather than as isolated fixes. It is the states that have the pulse of their communities and bear the responsibility for the welfare of their people. The recommendations are a departure from the traditional "silver bullet" solutions driven by parochial interests. Individuals serious about reforming education must do so with fresh eyes and open minds. The recommendations are intended to stimulate thinking and as a springboard for new ideas.

The commission's visit is timely. It comes when our state leaders are exploring ways to improve education. The recommendations in the report will allow lawmakers to take the initiative in renewing Utah's education and training systems able to deliver a world-class work force.

The report says it's "tough choices or tough times." I'm not sure we have a choice. We have to get it right this time.


Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-MAIL: [email protected]