This Op-Ed originally appeared in the 7/26/11 Robertson County Times.

The question is often asked why the chamber of commerce cares about what’s happening in our public schools. As in so many other areas of life, we all tend to live and work in “silos” without stepping back to take a look at the big picture and how our work and our lives impact others. Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit at Lipscomb University. Hosted by Tennessee SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization chaired by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. SCORE’s mission is to work with state and local governments to encourage sound policy decisions in public education, and to advance innovative reform on a statewide basis.

This summit brought together more than 500 people interested in the problems faced by rural communities in supporting and improving the education of their residents, together with a host of panelists and experts who are engaged in developing and implementing successful strategies to address the challenges and unique characteristics of rural school systems.

One of the main themes of the discussion was how to prepare the students of today to be productive and valuable members of the workforce of tomorrow. In the opening panel discussion, Kevin Huffman, the state’s commissioner of education, stated that employers are telling him that they need employees who have high levels of math, science and reading skills in order to fill their positions. Today’s high school graduates are not meeting those needs, and that in turn costs businesses in time and training dollars.

And with studies showing that 54 percent of future jobs will require some measure of post-secondary education, it is also imperative that our high school graduates are prepared to succeed in college or technical school. John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, said that “roughly four out of five freshmen who come to our community colleges require some kind of remedial or developmental education”. This has a significant time and funding cost as well which neither the state institutions nor the students can afford.

While considerable time was spent during the summit addressing the gaps and challenges, There were many speakers and participants who had success stories to tell and solutions to share. In east Tennessee, a coalition of fourteen school districts has formed with two goals: increase the availability of AP, dual enrollment and online courses and create a “college-going culture” in their communities. By working together across district lines, they have received a $20 million grant to create a technology infrastructure for distance learning which will enable students in all fourteen districts to have access to classes like Mandarin Chinese and advanced math and sciences. They are also hiring and training college and career counselors to fill the gaps where existing high school counselors, overburdened with testing and scheduling duties, do not have the time or resources to give individualized counseling. They are taking students and their parents on college visits, operating ACT prep classes, and helping open the doors for financial aid.

In the end, the most important thing I learned from the summit was that employers and educators must listen to each other to begin a collaborative effort that addresses the challenges that are before us. Federal standards, while important and necessary, must not stand in the way of preparing students for their futures. And in education, as in so many other areas, we are going to need to think regionally, ignoring the arbitrary boundaries of cities and counties, in order to have the resources necessary to provide our children with the education they deserve.

The chamber cares about education because its mission is support and promote economic development in our community and create an environment that sustains and attracts business and industry. And it’s all about jobs.