By Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano

This past week, I was proud to represent Arizona as the chair of the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington, D.C., where we brought together our nation's governors to discuss challenges facing our states.

Of critical importance was how we maintain our competitiveness in an increasingly global economy. It's the question of how we can develop new ideas and technologies, and a strong, agile work force that evolves with the changing marketplace. The answer is innovation, and it begins with my National Governors Association Chair's Initiative, "Innovation America."

America is the world leader in innovation, and for decades we have led the charge in bringing new ideas to market. But we face global competition because we have turned our head from the foundation of our strength — a vibrant educational system from pre-kindergarten to college that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math.

American companies are trailing in patents, and we are no longer the world's leading exporter of information technology products. Our students need to improve in math and science, and we must graduate more engineers and scientists. We are feeling the impact now. In 2004, the United States produced 137,000 new engineers compared with China's 352,000.

It's time for action. It's time for an overhaul, a fundamental change in the way we think, the way we teach and the way we do business in our country. It's time to out-innovate the competition.

"Innovation America" proposes a three-part plan to keep our country ahead of the competitive curve:

  • First, we must improve the rigor and relevance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in grades K-12 to ensure all students graduate from high school with the skills needed for a 21st-century work force.
  • Next, we must build our universities as pipelines of innovation for the local economies they serve, aligning their work, both the programs they offer to students and their research and development efforts, with the needs of the state's high-growth industries.
  • Finally, we must work with the private sector to develop an environment that fosters research and development, enhances innovation capacity and encourages entrepreneurship.

Our nation's governors are best positioned to lead this charge. States fund the majority of public education and set graduation and teacher standards. States are the problem-solvers and architects of policies that drive innovation. States are the engine for change and the impetus behind "Innovation America."

Together, along with business and academic leaders, governors can strengthen their states' innovative capacity and our ability to compete in a global economy.

Other challenges

In addition to focusing on "Innovation America," the NGA meeting provided governors with an opportunity to collaborate on common challenges, and to bring these issues to federal government with a unified voice.

Governors are fighting to prevent the federal government from reducing health insurance for our children. For the past decade, the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) has helped states offer health insurance to more children, reducing the uninsured rate by one-third. Substantially diminished federal funding, however, now threatens states' abilities to extend coverage to eligible children and families, and will force states to cut care. Governors across the nation — Republicans and Democrats alike —agree that this is untenable. America's children need and deserve health care. We urged the president to work with Congress to fill the children's health insurance shortfall to ensure our children have access to quality care.

As commanders in chiefs of our National Guards, governors are committed to ensuring that all Guard units, both deployed overseas and fulfilling domestic missions, are adequately equipped.

We are a nation at war, but that does not mean we should ignore the needs of our Guard and reservists who are serving at home. They must be well-equipped to meet challenges faced in their own states, such as forest fires, domestic security and emergency response.

Unfortunately, when our men and women return from overseas, their equipment and resources are being left behind with no commitment by the federal government to replace them. That's unacceptable. Governors made it clear to the president that homeland security and the safety of our Guard and reservists at home must be our top priority.

The issues that Arizonans face are felt across the country. Last week in Washington, governors came together to discuss these challenges and offer new solutions. It is my privilege to bring back these solutions and strategies and put them to work here at home.

Janet Napolitano is in her second term as Arizona's governor. She took office in January 2003. Contact her through her Web site, www.governor.state.az.us

The above content reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the policies of the National Governors Association.