Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are vying for the title of Change Agent in Chief because they recognize that Americans want the country to take a different direction from the course we’ve wobbled along on for eight pain-filled years. The public opinion polls clearly point out the despair the majority of voters feel over where we’re headed as a nation.Even McCain, the putative heir to Dubya’s shabby, wind-damaged mantle, is attempting the degree-of-difficulty-five maneuver of approving of the president’s policies while simultaneously distancing himself from them; he, too, promises change. He may get a hernia trying to do the splits like that, but you have to admire his gall.So if everyone wants change, what’s it going to take to get us off dead center and moving again?The cynics sniff that to produce “real” change, we’re going to have to spend a heck of a lot more money than we are now, and that means increasing taxes … and that means the voters might decide they really don’t want so much change after all.But I’d like to suggest that there are a lot of shifts in national policy that would produce significant positive results and that don’t take any money at all; that might, in fact, wind up saving the taxpayers a bundle. And I’m not even going to put getting the hell out of Iraq and Afghanistan on my list because that’s too easy. That particular hemorrhage has to be stanched before anything beneficial can be addressed.What I’m getting at is that for at least eight years (more if you remember the years Newt Gingrich was in control of the House), the path along which the country has been moving has been mean-spirited, suspicious, fearful and pinched. Even before 9/11, the national mood had become pessimistic, not hopeful. And after that date, we’ve allowed ourselves to be stampeded away from our civil liberties, from investing in the future, from open confidence. Now we build walls. Now we refuse to talk to any country not content to be our vassals. Now we pass laws that clearly erode our personal freedoms. Now we blindly bumble on, ignoring the consequences our policies will have on the legacy we leave our children.At last week’s town hall meeting on preparing New Mexico’s future workforce for the economy of tomorrow, sponsored by Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and the Children’s Cabinet (those dozen or more state departments that deal directly with children or youth issues), some good ideas surfaced for simple, inexpensive steps that could produce genuine change in our schools, our economy and in our national attitude. Lots of exciting options were discussed. It’s clear that there’s a pent-up creativity waiting to be tapped in this country. We haven’t lost the capacity for good ideas … we’ve just got to figure out how to navigate them past the barricades erected by special interests determined to preserve the status quo at all costs.Here are just four ideas floated that morning that I think our new president (as well as our next Legislature and Congress) ought to consider implementing. They aren’t necessarily the best or the most popular, but they give the flavor for what can be done to change our course. These all have to do with workforce preparation policies, but I’m confident that the other issues confronting our country would all generate similar lists of positive steps to take at little or no cost.1) Get rid of “No Child Left Behind” legislation and the high-stakes testing that was supposed to bring accountability to public education. It’s done more damage than good and our young people continue to drop out of school before graduating at alarming rates—the single best indicator of how our schools are doing. 2) End pre-employment drug testing. It catches casual marijuana users (the drug shows up in screening weeks after use) but not those who’ve taken more dangerous substances (meth, crack, PCP and heroin) as long as they’ve stopped a few days before the test. Thus, there’s no indication that the prospective employees who fail such a test might have a genuine substance abuse problem. But the system denies job opportunities to a great many young people who would be good workers and makes employers’ searches for a dependable workforce unnecessarily difficult.3) Provide tax incentives to businesses that create job mentoring or youth employment programs. Exposing students to the realities of the workplace can be a powerful motivator for them and can produce a better-prepared workforce. School systems should be directed to actively recruit such mentoring arrangements and curricula should be tailored to emphasize them, including adjusting classroom schedules beyond the current 8-to-3 framework.4) Modify the requirements for classroom teacher certification to get more real-world experience into the schools. As it stands now, retired professionals from other fields—engineering, architecture, journalism, whatever—who think about getting into teaching, either upon retirement or as a sort of sabbatical from their careers, face enormous, unnecessary obstacles. All this does is ensure the classroom is distant from the world of work and makes academic instruction seem perpetually irrelevant.Change doesn’t come easily. And more money doesn’t hurt. But the fundamental basis for any shift has to be good ideas and genuine solutions, and those will only flow when there is hope in our hearts for the future, not fear.
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