Monday, January 10, 2011

SFGate: America ignores education funding at our own peril

This by Robert Reich on SFGate:

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 wake-up call to America by the Soviets' successful space 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 eliminating funding for class-size reduction from 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 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.


  1. Reich says, "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."

    He then spends the rest of the article, with the exception of two sentences, making a case for throwing more money at it. So the disclaimer was there because it had to be, but his heart is in throwing more money at the problem.

    Then there his inverse-to-wealth voucher scheme. So the more taxes you pay the less you're entitled to. Strange theory. I thought education was the great equalizer?

  2. We don't need advanced education. We import as many people with advanced education as we need. Business prefers the silent uncreative "productive" worker to the American troublemaker.

  3. Don, I am occassionally on your page but you miss the mark on this. He isn't talking about throwing money at the problem, he is lamenting the enormous cuts that are happening despite the growing population. School spending is easy to cut because as long as they pay teachers or (anyone with the right credential to be alone with children) to show up, the school can stay open, even if there is just a bunch of photocopied worksheets and crayon nubs to keep the kids busy until 3:OO.
    Anyway, he says money is not the ONLY way to fix what's wrong. It is just plain stupid to think that kids can get educated by continually taking money away from schools.

  4. Education funding has expanded in its portion of the budget and in relation to all revenues over the last three decades. Academic achievement has suffered in the interim. At the heart of the matter it is not a lack of money.

    In so saying, don't presume I don't support a well-funded public education system. I just don't confuse the drop in achievement with the budget woes any more than I would presume that we would be achieving more simply because we have, until recently, spent more.