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Education and the Fiscal Cliff: A Message From the Commerical Breaks

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Those of us who kept the TV on during the merciless news cycle of December 30 to January 1 got plenty of clues about what to expect in 2013. Among the most comforting was the assurance that, with a telephone and a credit card, we can lose weight, firm our abs, kick our addictions, and stave off memory loss -- grand bargains within reach of all of us, even while Congress can't seem to find theirs.

The sellers have a point, whether or not they fully realize it. Motivation, development, agility, and focus are all essential to well-being in the New Year. But what a shame these qualities were relegated to the commercials that broke the flow of the real news. They are actually foundational to our long-term economic recovery.

I'm talking about education. Post-recession, new prosperity-style education. The continuous, career-long development of skills and competencies in energetic people, honed by training and practice, flexed and refined as economic conditions change, calibrated to individual and community goals for wealth creation. Will this kind of education make it to the main stage of upcoming debates about economic vitality and growth?

You laugh, perhaps, but how else is the U.S. going to reclaim our place at the forefront of developed nations in a dynamic, competitive, human-capital driven global economy?

One of the biggest challenges we face is that our world was transformed while we weren't paying careful attention. Economy and education are now essentially intertwined. Consider the well-documented chasm between the employment and earnings levels of Americans with post-secondary credentials and those without. Search in vain for a successful business person, an effective public servant, or a break-through scientist who still relies exclusively on what he or she learned in undergrad school decades ago. Pursuing one's dream career requires having a good educational foundation, being motivated to continuously develop knowledge and skills, being agile enough to respond to changing times, and staying focused long enough to meet the goal.

Let's step into the new world this new year by casting some old metaphors aside.

• Education is not a can we can kick down the road. A more apt image is studying for a math or science or foreign language exam. Those of us who are tempted to put it off until the last minute learn soon enough about the inevitability of failure. We will pay the price. (I speak from experience.)

• Education is not a social program or a budget line item that can be cut or not cut. Rather, it's an economic investment strategy, with returns more sustainable than tax incentives, more enduring than infrastructure.

• Education is not just for children anymore. Public and private sector partners in many economic regions across the nation get this already; they have come together in St. Louis, Louisville, East Lansing, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other places to focus on adult learners and the imperative of a continuously-reskilled talent pool.

• And education is not a partisan issue. In fact, it is the perfect opportunity for bipartisan success. If we envision it, education can be the locus where private sector innovation (happening now through edu-preneurs, for-profit firms, nonprofit organizations, and B-corporations) can disrupt and scale up in co-opetition with more traditional educational institutions that maintain that vast public good -- a skilled workforce.

Back at the Capitol, will policymakers step up to these new realities as they engage in the big debt, deficit, and policy debates ahead? It's a safe bet that few of them picked up on the hidden messages in those commercial breaks last week end. But if we constituents stay focused, perhaps they will learn from us.