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Renewing the Public Option for Education

Opinion | April 12, 2010

Over the past several weeks and months, there has been much discussion over the controversial idea of a public option for Americans without health insurance. While the merits and the flaws of such a healthcare plan have been tirelessly debated, we can all agree that it is time to breathe new life into our education system’s public option. All Americans have the option of sending their children to public schools; we should ensure that these schools meet minimum standards.

There was a time when we challenged ourselves and the world in the field of education. Following the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik, President Eisenhower worked to establish the National Defense Education Act. The bill invested millions of federal dollars into all levels of public education. While only 15% of Americans attended college in 1940, over 40% Americans were attending college by 1970. The president made it abundantly clear that the United States would not take a back seat amongst nations in terms of education. Instead, America planned to set the benchmark for education worldwide.

While we have set the world standard on how to bail out our banks and car companies, we have denied our children their constitutional right of “the pursuit of happiness.” Although lawmakers deemed these large corporate conglomerates “too big to fail,” there is nothing that is more important to our economy now and in the future than the education of our children. Education is what launched the United States into its role as leader amongst nations, and, at this pace, it will inevitably lead to our demise.

As General Stanley McChrystal urged the president to rapidly increase American investment in Afghanistan to prevent the deterioration of the country, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan must offer the same urgency to Mr. Obama with regards to his own country. At some point, we must shift our concern from the youth of Afghanistan to the youth of America. The situation is in dire need of attention. Nowhere are we failing the next generation of Americans more than in large cities. Fourteen major cities have a graduation rate that is less than 50%, including Detroit, Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Denver, and Houston. Before we even begin discussing changes in the curriculum, attention must be given to just keeping the student population enrolled.

While graduation rates are higher outside of the larger cities, even there students are still not being equipped with the tools they need to compete in a 21st century economy. If we cannot stimulate the minds of our youth, no amount of economic stimulus can save the future of our economy. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 18th in education among industrialized nations.  Students in the US rank 17th in science and 24th in math worldwide. In reading, only a third of our students are scoring in the proficient category. By the time American students reach eighth grade, their curriculum is already two years behind that of other top performing nations. While over 200 million Chinese learn to speak English in their public schools, the United States seems content to keep their students monolingual with a failed language education system. If education is the currency of the future, we must keep borrowing from the Chinese.

How has the United States responded to this global challenge in education? We continue to lower our standards. While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a major step in education reform, it has inadvertently created a system in which states continue to lower the expectations bar. In 2007, only 18% of Mississippi students scored proficient in the standardized national reading test, but 88% scored proficient in the state exam. While Mississippi can be considered an extreme, a Department of Education report acknowledged, “state-defined proficiency standards are often far lower than proficiency standards on the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress].” Test scores have improved slightly under this system, but our students’ education levels have remained constant. As states are put under enormous pressure to show improvements in test scores, they lower the standards, so while politicians avoid trouble, our children inherit it.

Even our once-apparent monopoly on higher education has eroded in recent years. While ranking second in the world in older adults with a college diploma, the US has slipped to eighth in the world in young adults with a college diploma. As other countries continue to provide numerous incentives for their students to attend universities, the United States seems content to allow higher education to climb ever higher out of the reach of ordinary Americans.

China and other Asian countries have created a higher education system that is far more successful in equipping its students with the means to survive in a 21st century economy. More than 50% of undergraduate degrees awarded in China are in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, compared to just 16% in the United States. While we are focused on creating professionals, China and our competitors are creating the entrepreneurs and engineers of the future.

Education reform is not about a single bill, but rather a fundamental shift in our nation’s mindset. Perhaps instead of focusing on the probability of vicotry in the March Madness tournament, we should focus on the probability of the team graduating. While parents, teachers, and students all express discontent with the status quo, no party truly seems interested in tackling the necessary reforms. One necessary piece of the puzzle is expanding the school calendar. The 180-day school year is based on the agrarian calendar, dating back to a time when children would spend summers assisting their parents in the fields. As the economy has changed in the past century, so has the need for adapting our school calendar to meeting the growing demands of a globalized world. The average European school year is 195 days, while the average East Asian school year is 208 days. It will be impossible for young Americans to create the next generation of jobs if we are not competing on a level playing field.

Educational standards must be raised for students, teachers, and parents. While this shift in our mentality is most important in reforming a broken system, financial investment will be crucial. In too many areas across the country, school boards are making decisions based on economics and not on education. More and more schools across the country are transitioning from a five-day to a four-day school week. As the economy has turned sour, funds for education have dissipated. One Minnesota superintendent recently complained, “There just aren’t that many places to cut anymore, We’ve cut the last 10, 12 years and there’s no place to go, so now we’d have to cut basic programs.” If we can find money for the bankers and the auto dealers, we can surely find money for our students. As we consider legislation on expanding healthcare and creating jobs, we should consider renewing the public option in education as an investment in the long-term well-being of the nation.