Now, on to the dramatic conclusion of Conetzkey in D.C. - my thoughts, takeaways and observations from the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s annual trip to Washington, D.C. A big thank you to all those who spent time talking with me on the trip - it was great getting to meet everyone, and I hope to get the chance to meet with you each again in the future. As always, if you have a story idea, news tip or just want to grab a coffee to talk, don’t hesitate to reach out at chrisconetzkey@bpcdm.com.

The perfection of education
Education was a big theme on the trip. We heard from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a great panel that included Massie Ritsch, the head of the U.S. Department of Education’s communications (you might have seen him on “The Colbert Report”). There’s no question things need to be done to help ensure that our students are prepared properly for college and ultimately the workforce. The long-awaited renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act along with the Common Core State Standards Initiative were major topics. The Common Core Initiative, in case you aren’t familiar, intends to provide state standards for a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them (learn more here). I thought there were some innovative ideas, such as removing grades and going to a level- and skill-based system. I thought the idea of judging students based on their year-to-year improvement is much better than a grade that compares them solely to their peers. I thought finding a way to make sure we aren’t only spending our attention on the bottom third of students and giving students in the top third a chance to fully develop is just as vital,  if not more important. But without a set of standards - standards that offer flexibility for implementation - you can’t do any of that. My big takeaway, however, is there is no silver bullet. I had a long car ride back to my home in the Chicago suburbs, where I talked with my wife (who was an education major, works at Des Moines Area Community College and comes from a family of teachers) and with my mother (also a teacher). I left Washington, D.C., feeling like the solution to making the best workforce in the world was just inches away. But when you start talking about the implementation of these great ideas, you can see some of the hurdles: Parents, teachers and administrations that are used to the way things are done, and the simple fact that for many, the thought of your child not receiving a letter grade almost seems ridiculous. There is no perfect solution, and the Common Core Initiative will need to be explained fully to all the stakeholders. But I thought Duncan had a great quote when he said, “In education, perfect often gets in the way of good.” I’m still formulating my thoughts on all this, but I can say it was great having a discussion on this issue, and it’s one in which business needs to have input. One quick note, David Wilkerson, superintendent of the Waukee Community School District, who was on the trip, is one of the co-chairs for the Capital Crossroads Human Capital, which has a goal to develop a skilled workforce in the region (read about it here). 

What if we never run out of Oil?
Even as I thought the trip was all but over at 32,000 feet, I was able to glean one more great conversation. I happened to be sitting next to Dave Caris, the vice president of state governmental affairs for MidAmerican Energy Co. MidAmerican had experienced quite the busy week, what with a nearly $2 billion investment in Iowa wind energy, and I’m sure a reporter sitting next to him on the plane was the last thing Caris wanted to see. I didn’t intend to ask him all that much, but I as fate would have it, I read a really good article in The Atlantic titled “What if we never run out of oil?” It was a fascinating look at the some of the new technologies and fossil fuel energy opportunities right here in America that are leading some experts to claim that the United States could be energy independent by 2035. The story examines the pros and cons, and looks at some of the potentially negative impacts an energy-independent United States could have on other nations, particularly in the Middle East. So, poor Dave had to sit there for a three-hour flight while I peppered him with questions about energy, his thoughts on the ideas in the article and MidAmerican’s current and future investments. Energy is fascinating to me because of all its potential impacts on quality of life and, of course, the economy. Dave was a good sport and I promised I’d let him get a little shut-eye, but it was a great chance to learn a bit about an unfamiliar industry. Dave is also the co-chair for the Capital Crossroads Physical Capital, which looks at how the region can best accommodate additional population and economic growth (read about it here).

The Bible and taxes
Balancing the budget and flaws in the tax code were an obvious topic for all the congressional leaders who spoke on the trip. Here’s some figures courtesy Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee: 
  • Since 1970 the United States has only had a balanced budget for four years (1998-2001).
  • During that period, tax revenue as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) was 20 percent.
  • If the tax code remains unchanged, 10 years from now, tax revenue will be 19.1 percent of GDP. That seems like a small percentage change, but in terms of the economy, that’s a big chunk.
Here’s the thing: There is no question, and both Democrats and Republicans said it, that leaders will need to look at both spending and taxes in order to fix the budget issue. Rep. Paul Ryan spoke of nearly the same end goals as Van Hollen, so it seems to me an argument over how to get it done. I think there is a compromise in there somewhere. I just hope the latest gaffe from the Obama administration doesn’t halt progress. I’ll end with a quote from Sen. Chuck Grassley: “The tax code is longer than the Bible. ... But there is no good news in it." 

From taxes to skating
You never know what you’re going to learn about someone’s past. I’m a firm believer that even the most plain business people have a hobby or talent masked by the suit they wear on a daily basis; it’s one of the reasons we do our Photo Issue each year (view it here). Via an inside source close to the situation - yes, I did get the tip while meeting confidentially in a dark parking garage - I learned that Curt Simmons, president and CEO of the Science Center of Iowa, was in fact, gasp, a professional skateboarder. Simmons is long past his skating days - though he’s considering buying a longboard to get to work - but the Hawaii transplant brought his surfer skills and culture with him to Colorado in the 1970s and was actually a sponsored skateboarder. And his stories about skating up in the mountains and searching out empty swimming pools definitely revealed his inner skater. He was just named the head of the Science Center last September, and is very involved in the STEM initiative (read about STEM here). Seek him out if you’re looking for a good conversation. Now, if we can just persuade him to get back on the board, maybe the Science Center would have its next attraction.

Networking wingwoman
Hopefully I don’t get my source in trouble, but thanks to Emilee Richardson for the tip on Curt. Full disclosure, Emilee is a friend of mine. Emilee, a Drake University graduate, is the marketing and communications coordinator for the Science Center and blogs for the Business Record’s IowaBiz.com site on topics pertinant to young professionals. She’s smart, talented and frankly a rockstar tweeter and Instagrammer. Every time I’d go to send a tweet on the trip, she had me beat. Feeling threatened by her tweeting prowess, I was forced to elevate my tweeting game to a new level. Emilee has a nice, mostly joking, post on IowaBiz.com about networking strategies in large group settings. I won’t say I’m the inspiration, but hey, that’s what editors are for (Read her post here). At any rate, the Science Center is lucky to have her, and so is the Young Professionals Connection, which she will lead as president in 2014. 

I might be a youngling but I love my Yuengling
Next time you are back East, make sure to grab a Yuengling beer rather than a Budweiser or Miller. It’s far from the best beer I’ve ever tasted, but it is a great lager that you can only get in 14 states and one district, and apparently it claims to be from the country’s oldest brewery. We can’t accept gifts due to our profession, but I hear that Business Record reporter Kyle Oppenhuizen - who spent a summer in Washington at USA Today for an internship - has a bit of a soft spot for the beer.

Paparazzi photos from D.C.
And lastly, it’s what everyone is waiting for: candid photos of all the participants sleeping on the plane, dancing at the Nadas concert and enjoying a few too many Yuenglings at the Dubliner. Click here to see them all