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LEADERS look at technology, with an eye toward rest of the economy

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) _ Southerners will have to overcome their cultural tendency to resist change if the region is to build a technologically advanced economy, and states must improve education as they work to rival the rest of the nation in economic growth.

The Southern Growth Policies Board _ which includes Oklahoma and 12 other states _ began its three-day meeting Sunday to develop plans to act on a board report outlining goals for improvement in education, entrepreneurship and quality of life throughout the South.

``With all our sense of place in the South, we have a resistance to change,'' said Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in a panel discussion. He was joined on the panel by Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Jim Hodges of South Carolina, and other officials.

Hodges said states should expand public education to include pre-kindergarten through two years beyond high school graduation. Years ago, a high school diploma was enough to get a job and live a middle-class existence. Now, the well-being of a state's economy hinges on more advanced education, he said.

``We all need to aggressively move toward K-through-14 ... and I think that will help us make the quantum leap,'' Hodges said.

Georgia and North Carolina are reaping the benefits of having invested in technology and research, and Hodges said those states provide models for the rest of the South.

Much of the talk centered on education. Musgrove said Mississippi will soon have an Internet-connected computer in each classroom. Virginia Lt. Gov. John Hager said schools need to work with local businesses to ensure a steady supply of computers. Plus, schools need staff members that can guide faculty and students in using the Internet.

``I think sometimes it goes beyond just having a computer,'' he said.

The board's report says the South must create a ``culture of learning'' in which citizens regard acquiring information as central to happiness and prosperity.

To that end, Huckabee said Arkansas' ``Smart Start'' program that teaches reading and math and a character program that educates young school children on manners and responsibility will help bring about that cultural change. He also said that the South has to acknowledge the mistake of slavery and that its lingering byproduct has been bigotry and an underclass.

``We didn't let everyone have an opportunity,'' Huckabee said, drawing applause from the 400 or so gathered from 13 states and Puerto Rico. He noted that Southern states seeing an influx of Hispanic residents can make sure new residents assimilate.

``I think that would bring more to the area of social capital than anything else we can do,'' Huckabee said.

The group released the Southern Innovation Index, which measures a range of categories and will include polling on quality of life. The index will be used to measure improvement over the next 10 years. The report strives to help states identify shortcomings and the conference is to share information on how to improve.

Sunday's panelists agreed that the states need to expand research and development. Hager said tight state budgets make it tougher to secure funding for research, despite its long-term benefits.

``It's a piece of the budget you can aggressively defend,'' he said.

Huckabee complained that in Arkansas research money is often regarded as an extraneous expense.

``It is a huge, huge obstacle for us,'' Huckabee said. But the state has expanded research at state-funded institutions.

Another goal set by the group is expanding money available for business development and seeing more organizations developed to help grow new businesses.

Tony Grande, of Tennessee's Economic and Community Development Department, said the state has established a $15 million fund that, with matching money, will make $40 million available for business development. Southern states that find it difficult to attract out-of-state money need to find business investors within their own borders, he said.

Hodges said he would like to use state pension funds and university money to invest in budding businesses. Too often, state money goes toward manufacturers that are relocating or expanding. Some cash-starved startups could have an important impact on the economy, and the states should look toward lending a hand, he said.

The board's members are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico.
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