America's governors, stung by the loss of jobs to Japan and other foreign competitors, are making better schools their top priority for the remainder of the 1980s. Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the National Governors' Association, says improving US education has become essential ``so that America can be ready to compete in the world marketplace.''
The education issue will be at the head of the agenda when most of the nation's governors gather here on Saturday to begin their annual midwinter meeting.
``What has suddenly riveted everyone's attention on our education system is that our standard of living is threatened,'' Governor Alexander said in a telephone interview from Nashville.
``We're not going to have the jobs and the good incomes in America if we don't have the good skills,'' he said.
``That's especially true of the Southern states where I am. So the Southern states by and large are doing more than any other part of the country to catch up and move ahead . . . because we have further to go.''
All this has prompted the governors to assemble a series of task forces to explore education issues like:
Paying more for teaching well.
Giving parents a choice of the public schools their children will attend.
Opening schools during the summer.
Giving teachers more opportunities for leadership.
A major study, the ``1991 Report,'' will bring together the recommendations of the governors when it is released in August.
The report will suggest ways that the states can foster educational excellence over the next five years.
Alexander, a Republican, is spearheading the education project. He says:
``The public schools generally are doing better, but they are not doing as well as they need to do if America is going to compete.''
Among Alexander's major concerns: ``The teaching profession needs restructuring badly. It needs to be a more professional career, a more attractive career. It needs to offer better pay. It needs to offer more opportunities for leadership. . . . And people need to be able to earn more if they teach well.''
Some states are already attempting to move in these directions. Several, including Tennessee, have recently instituted ``master teacher'' programs aimed at improving the quality of instruction.
While in Washington, the governors also want to find out more about the impact of White House and congressional efforts to balance the federal budget, including the impact of the Gramm-Rudman law. By and large, however, the governors are not whining about losses in federal aid.
Alexander says 14 states this year have already been forced to reduce spending to avoid running up deficits. But the states appear to be handling cuts in aid rather well, the Tennessee governor adds.
In fact, says Alexander, ``the governors, as a whole, are ready to accept more responsibility. . . . Some governors really look forward to the federal government's withdrawing from a number of areas in education and highways and economic development, so that the state and local governments can accept the responsibility.''
That feeling is not universal, however, he observes. ``Other governors are wringing their hands about it and are worried about what the impact of it will be in the future.''
Alexander says that federal funds coming to his own state have actually increased in each of the Reagan years. The first actual decline may occur in 1986, he says.
``We hear a lot about cuts, but in Washington cuts are usually a cut from the amount that people were asking for, not a cut from the amount we got last year.''
The governor concedes that some people at the grass-roots level are being hurt by efforts in Washington to slow federal spending.
But he adds: ``They're not suffering as much as all the people of America will be if Washington doesn't balance its budget.''