Over the long term, the only way we’re going to raise wages, grow the economy and improve American competitiveness is by investing in our people ― especially their educations.
Yet we’re falling behind. In a recent survey of 34 advanced nations by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, our kids came in 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading. The average 15-year-old American student can’t answer as many test questions correctly as the average 15-year-old student in Shanghai.
I’m not one of those who believe the only way to fix what’s wrong with American education is to throw more money at it. We also need to do it much better. Teacher performance has to be squarely on the table. We should experiment with vouchers whose worth is inversely related to family income. Universities have to tame their budgets for student amenities that have nothing to do with education.
But considering the increases in our population of young people and their educational needs, and the challenges posed by the new global economy, more resources are surely needed.
President Obama calls this a “Sputnik moment,” referring to the wakeup call to America by the Soviet Union’s successful launch in the 1950s. That resulted in the National Defense Education Act, which trained a whole generation of math and science teachers.
Sadly, we’re heading in the opposite direction. The tax bill signed by the president in the closing hours of the last Congress was a huge boon to the very wealthy. Yet by further widening the federal budget deficit, it invites even more federal budget cuts in public education. Pell grants that allow young people from poor families to attend college are already squeezed.
Less visible are cuts the states are already making in their school budgets. That’s no surprise. Education is one of the biggest expenses in state budgets. But states can’t run deficits, and tax revenues during the prolonged downturn haven’t kept up. And Washington is in no mood to help.
State cuts in public education have been under the national radar, but viewed as a whole they seriously threaten the nation’s future.
Already, 33 states have sliced education budgets for next year, on top of cuts last year. For example, Arizona has eliminated preschool for 4,328 children, and cut funding for books, computers and other classroom supplies. California has reduced K-12 aid to local school districts by billions of dollars and is cutting a variety of programs, including adult literacy instruction and help for high-needs students.
Colorado and Georgia have reduced public-school spending nearly 5 percent from 2010, Illinois and Massachusetts by 3 percent. Virginia’s $700 million in cuts for the coming year includes funding for class-size reduction in kindergarten through third grade. Washington suspended a program to reduce class sizes.
Meanwhile, at least 43 states are cutting back on funding for public colleges and universities, and increasing tuitions and fees. This means many qualified young people won’t be able to attend. For example, the University of California has increased tuition by 32 percent and reduced freshman enrollment by 2,300 students; the California State University system cut enrollment by 40,000 students.
Arizona’s board of regents has approved in-state undergraduate tuition increases of between 9 percent and 20 percent, as well as fee increases at the state’s three public universities. Florida’s public universities have raised tuition 32 percent. New York’s state university system has increased resident undergraduate tuition by 14 percent. Texas has cut funding for higher education by 5 percent, or $73 million. Washington has reduced state funding for the University of Washington by 26 percent.
Why have we allowed this to happen? Our young people ― their capacities to think, understand, investigate and innovate ― are America’s future. In the name of fiscal prudence we’re endangering that future.
Maybe the answer is that America’s biggest corporations don’t especially care. They’re getting the talent they need all over the world. Many of the them now have research and development operations in Europe and China, for example.
America’s wealthy and upper-middle-class families don’t seem particularly worried, either. They have enough money to send their kids to good private schools, and to pay high tuitions at private universities.
I’m not suggesting that the stealth attack on American education is intentional. It’s happening because public budgets are tight. But when big corporations and the wealthy demand tax cuts, and don’t particularly care about public education, the inevitable result is that most of America’s kids are vulnerable.
By Robert B. Reich
Robert Reich, a former U.S. secretary of labor, is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the new book “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.” ― Ed.
(Tribune Media Services)