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Obama Townhall: Math, science add up

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

By Flynn Murphy

GLEN ELLYN -- U.S. Sen. Barack Obama took questions from a crowd of 1,100 on Tuesday at College of DuPage's McAninch Arts Center.

At the meeting, Obama stressed the importance of increasing the size of America's well-educated work force. Community colleges such as COD will play an important role in producing those well-educated workers, he said.

"There are certain skills that everybody needs in the modern economy," Obama said. "Two of those building blocks are math and science skills."

The Democratic senator said today's youths will face a new and very different series of challenges in the job market.

"The future job market will be more unstable than it was a generation ago," Obama said.

"Ultimately, our success will come down to how well we're supporting institutions like College of DuPage," he later added.
"We're never going to be able to compete with Bangladesh in terms of labor costs. What we can provide is higher skills and a better education."

But a good education might not be enough. A few members of the audience brought up their concern that students were graduating from colleges and universities in Illinois and still struggling to find gainful employment. Obama suggested that better collaboration between educational institutions and the private sector could be mutually beneficial.

"The smart thing to do is to see what are the growth sectors of the future," he said. "The best thing to do is go to those businesses in the growth sector and ask them to help design the courses for incoming students. That has been very effective."

COD is already one step ahead. Bill Troller, a public information officer for the college, said it has been working with local businesses for several years.

"Our president, Sunil Chand, has made it his business to meet with captains of industry to find out what we need to be offering to insure that our graduates find gainful employment," Troller said. "What the senator said is just what we're doing."

Obama added a final thought on the challenges of finding a viable career in the modern economy.

"The biggest skill will be knowing how to get along with people who aren't like you," he said. "That's where a little poetry and literature come in."

Other DuPage residents expressed concerns that despite a strong local education system, too many jobs are leaving the state and the country.

"These corporations are doing everything they can to cut my paycheck and export my job," said Adam Florzak, a COD student.

Obama said many of his actions as a member of the Senate's Transportation Committee are designed to bring jobs back to Illinois.

"My support for a western access road to O'Hare is going to be important for residents of DuPage County," he said, referring to his support for the construction of a $140 million road between the western suburbs and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
But for some DuPage students, the most pressing concern is not higher education and the subsequent job hunt. One mother questioned why some children in the Chicago area face the more immediate concern of receiving an adequate elementary education.

"I just don't understand how all the money is dispersed," said Kimberly Loins, a COD student and mother of two. "I don't understand how money can go to one school when another school 10 miles down the road can't afford books."

Obama said he understands those concerns.

"The reason you see differences between funding at a school district in Ford Heights versus a school district in, say, Naperville, is directly attributable to property taxes," he said, noting that property taxes are generally much higher in Naperville.

Obama conceded that ultimately the school district debate is a state issue. But he said there is much work to do at the federal level.

"Our budget expresses our values," Obama said. "In the most recent federal budget, funding for student loans went down, but there was a $700 billion tax cut that disproportionately benefits people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet."

Obama said despite an unstable marketplace, "it is still possible to have lifetime employability. A college like COD plays an important role in building that knowledge. But COD also has to keep the lights on and pay its teachers."

He added that finding additional federal funding for education is one of his main goals.


Obama bytes:

* On his first year as a senator: "It's pretty cool being a senator. One thing you notice is everybody returns your calls. Even the phone company returns my calls now."

* On his recent trip to the Middle East: "It was colder in Israel than it is in Chicago."

* On the federal No Child Left Behind Act: "We left the money behind for No Child Left Behind."

* On the Bush administration's domestic wiretaps: "In my mind, the president acted inappropriately and without authority."

* On U.S. intelligence: "My first job is to make sure my children don't get blown up. I want our intelligence to be vigilant."

* On plans to privatize Social Security: "There's a fetish with this administration about the market and private sector that I think is wrongheaded. The market's not always going to work as perfectly as it does in the book."

* On science and faith in the classroom: "Intelligent design is not science. We should teach our children theology to get them to think about the meaning of life. But that's separate from how atoms or photons work."