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Times change, so why doesn’t government?

It is a silly political war of words between the state’s two parties. One side (e.g. Rep. Jeanne Poppe and Sen. Dan Sparks) says, "Our spending habits are OK, we are just running low on money so we need more. But the hard-hearted governor won’t let it happen." 

The other side (e.g., Gov. Pawlenty) says, "Times are tough, there is no more money to be had, we gotta get tough."  

Both are wrong — because both are focused on the wrong things.

Ordinary citizens recognize inefficient government that merely keeps doing what it has always done instead of rapidly adapting to fast-changing times. We want our government to be as effective as affordable cell phones, laptops and PCs, the Internet and cable TV, all of which have replaced or vastly changed old technologies. 

Why cannot our government agencies and the schools change in a similar manner?

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But traditional institutions seldom change themselves. One notable exception is once-powerful Dayton’s starting up a new Target discount store chain in the 1960s to compete with itself. I was a very poor college student back then who welcomed the chance to purchase good merchandise for less.

But more often it takes a Judge Green to design an "anti-trust breakup" like that of IBM and AT&T in the 1980s that opened up competition in computers and telecom.  There’s little chance we would have laptops or cell phones today at throw-away prices without a fundamental change in those two giants. 

That decision caused the telecoms to lay off many long-time employees, like both my wife and me. But those changes benefited the public and it turned out OK for us, too.

The 2009 legislative session saw differing budget proposals, but all included approximately half of all spending for education, a 150-year-old institution. Does anything matter more to the public than education? Yet very little discussion ever takes place to review its fundamental cost-benefit or what can be done to remarkably improve the prospects for world-class learning by all Minnesota kids and adults. 

Until we change the wording, and thus our thinking, from "K-12" and "higher ed" to some new term that encompasses lifetime self-directed learning, we will be saddled with paying a high price for an inadequate product produced by an outmoded institution. 

Democrats continue to tout doing more good by spending more, thus enlarging the role of government, but they have difficulty showing significant gains. Republicans say a larger and costlier government has not produced appealing results, therefore reduce or limit government growth and cost (taxes). 

Neither side offers anything more than incremental measures to modify the institution. What neither party has shown is the courage to talk about revolutionary ideas for political changes in government policy and support for education into the 21st century. 

Outside of government, there are visionaries who see new directions for education. Notably, right here in Minnesota, is Education Evolving (educationevolving.org) which calls for changing the very structure of systems so we have the government focused on lifetime learning by kids and all ages, rather than narrowly supporting only the existing public institutions.In essence, public education is a regulated monopoly little different in how it functions from traditional utility companies. 

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When will every person and family in Minnesota have public-funded choices between the traditional regulated monopoly and all the new learning models that have already appeared, such as programmed instruction, distance learning, online research? When every person or family has options, I believe we will see the same kind of revolutionary benefit that resulted from the breakup of the telecom monopoly. 

Today we can choose from plain old telephone service (POTS), caller ID, call waiting, and voice mail, plus a plethora of new options for local and long distance carriers, cell phones, VOIP phones. Who can guess what is still coming?

No doubt there will be resistance from all the disaffected people. The April-May ad campaign by the Minnesota Education Association against funding cuts for education serves as a forewarning to the sort of power and money that will be applied to keep the monopoly.

If the variety of placards hoisted at recent "tea party" demonstrations proves anything, it is that people of many political types want more significant changes in government, not just more of the old rhetoric. 

Lest we forget, our mixed experience of a third-party governor with competing control of the Minnesota Senate and House says something about this, too.

Austin resident Brian Thiel is a former GOP candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives. His writes periodically for the Austin Post-Bulletin.

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