Southern panel presents plan for dispelling economic clouds. Sunbelt states urged to bolster education and update work force

Far fewer patents are issued in the South than the national average. That statistic was used by the Commission on the Future of the South to show that its region is having difficulty competing with the rest of the United States, now that much of the shine is off the Sunbelt.

The commission used patents as one measure of local enterprise and educational progress. The statistics showed that for the states the commission studied - Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia - the average number of patents issued in 1985 per million people was 96. The average for the rest of the states was 210.

The Commission on the Future, which reports on the state of the South once every six years, conclued that Southern states are going to have to become much more self-reliant if they are going to be able to compete in the future.

With the drop in oil prices, the collapse of Southern agriculture, the realization that Southern labor is not as cheap as Asian labor, and the decline in federal aid programs, the region has lost some of the appeal that attracted industry during the 1960s and 1970s.

``Times have changed,'' said Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh, whose state has suffered from the drop in oil prices. ``It used to be we could face north and chant three times, `We are the Sunbelt,' and industry would come rolling down. Now we have to implement strategies aimed at home-grown industry.''

While bright spots remain in the economy throughout the region, hard times in many places have exposed problems that have been around for more than 100 years. Education reform has been late in starting and still has a long way to go; the economic and educational gap between rural and urban areas and between blacks and whites is wide and growing; state and local governments are often inefficient and mired in outmoded constitutions; and leaders are often parochial in their outlook.

The commission looked at how the Northeastern economy has rebounded and noted that quality education is fueling the economy there.

While jobs are still coming to the South, they are going to white, middle-class, urban workers. Blacks and rural folk are being left behind in a widening gap of economic disparity.

The commission recommended a 10-point plan to try to close that gap and keep growth coming to the Sunbelt:

1.Provide a nationally competitive education for all Southern students by closing the gap in spending on education between Northern and Southern states and raising teacher standards. That means increasing education spending by about 4 percent a year and spreading that money fairly between urban and rural areas.

2.Eliminate adult functional illiteracy by first identifying how great the problem is in each state and then providing adequate money to combat it - first reaching illiterates through television and then teaching them in community colleges.

3.Prepare a flexible, globally competitive work force by upgrading vocational schools so that they teach the type of high-tech skills that can be used in a variety of jobs. Help retrain workers who have lost their jobs because the industries they work in shut down.

4.Strengthen families that are at risk by increasing welfare eligibility and benefits (now well below the national average) while at the same time requiring recipients to attend programs in job-training, remedial education, and parenting. School-based health-care and family-planning clinics could provide medical attention before problems become acute and could reduce teen pregnancies.

5.Increase the economic development role of higher education by first ending the wasteful duplication that exists in many state university systems and then granting money to schools based on quality of performance rather than number of students. Until elementary and secondary schools start producing better students, colleges and universities should provide more remedial work, especially for minority students who are now recruited into schools and then are allowed to fail.

6.Increase the South's capacity to generate and use technology by creating regional and state ``centers of excellence,'' like North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, that link upgraded engineering and scientific graduate programs at top universities with private research firms. University professors should be encouraged to market their innovations.

7.Aim economic develpment strategy at home-grown business and industry. Assist entrepreneurs by reducing the bureaucracy for getting permits and licenses, by helping to match buyers with suppliers, and by investing seed capital in some enterprises.

8.Enhance the South's natural and cultural resources that are helping to attract business by making environmental management a top priority and by helping local governments in boom areas manage growth. Fresh-water supplies should be protected, and money should be spent to ensure that waste is disposed of safely.

9.Develop pragmatic leaders with global vision to replace the parochial outlook of many Southern politicians. Especially on the local level, the South needs to find enlightened leaders, and some states should establish institutes of government or leadership seminars that would lift standards for local leadership.

10.Improve the structure and performance of state government by rewriting laws to streamline operations. More power should be given to governors so that they can plan and implement coherent programs.

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