Education: A boost worthy undertaking

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society … It is the very foundation of good citizenship … In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

The preceding quote is not from President Obama, nor Vice President Biden. It is a quote from the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and it highlights just how long we have struggled with equal and fair access to a good education.

On Tuesday, Feb. 17, President Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus bill into law. Included in the bill is almost $115 billion in emergency aid for public schools and universities (cut down from the $147 billion the House allocated).

There are some very stark facts that support a need for emergency aid: This generation of high school students is the first that will be less likely to graduate high school than their parents. In 17 of our largest school districts, less than half the students graduate. One in four high school students don’t graduate on time – that figure increases to one in three for minority students. More than 1.3 million kids drop out of high school every year, and the gap in graduation rates between urban and suburban schools is around 15 percent overall, reaching as high as 40 percent.

Higher education statistics aren’t any better: From 1982 to 2007, college tuition and fees increased 439 percent – median family income rose only 147 percent. In the past five years, adjusted for inflation, the average cost for in-state tuition has leaped 35 percent (it will increase between 5 and 6 percent in Wisconsin in the next two years). In the last 10 years, student borrowing has more than doubled – in 1993 the average debt was around $9,000 to around $20,000, a 58-percent increase after inflation – during this same time total funds available for financial aid and grants actually decreased. Finally, last year the average net cost of a four-year public degree was around 25 percent of an annual income for a middle-class family.

The stimulus bill was the root of many points of contention, with Sen. John McCain and other Republican talking heads reaching for the lowest hanging hyperboles and platitudes, finally settling on “generational theft” and “porkulus bill,” and a select few governors threatening to decline the funds because they have “fundamental differences (with the president) on the role of government.” Spurious lectures from Republicans on generational theft aside (how did the last eight years contribute to where we are today?), the infusion of over $100 billion might just help save our nation.

A University of Washington study reported that without “massive intervention,” states across the nation would have to cut over $80 billion in educational spending and possibly lay off over 600,000 educational professionals. In a time when it is increasingly obvious that the path to a stable, well-paying and fulfilling life depends on a robust education and the ideal that parents’ children will inherit a world better than they did, drastic and draconian cuts to education would be perpetuating a national catastrophe.

In one quiet yet forceful step, the Obama administration gave this country something it needed: money for our future generations. Specifically, it gives $54 billion to help states avoid deep budget cuts, $13 billion for public schools in low-income areas or that serve poor children, around $32 billion to increase the size of Pell Grants and a tax credit for families with children in college (around $2,500), $12 billion for special education and $5 billion for early childhood education programs.

Throwing money at problems does not fix them, that is clear. Much needs to be done to address all the issues that plague our schools – we need to increase teacher pay, build greener schools, reinvent the way we assess teachers, our schools and our students, graduate more of them and shrink the achievement gap between our country’s haves and have-nots. We need to make college more affordable to more families and redesign the way we re-educate our workforce.

But this bill is help right here, right now. And it starts maybe as important as the money itself; it starts the conversation about how to best to spend the money and how best to reform our educational system.

This Tuesday, President Obama, in his first address to Congress, laid out some of the reasons why our educational future is so very important, and challenged us: “If we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday, years from now, our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, ‘something worthy to be remembered.'”

His words reminded me of an old Native American saying I recently read – that our work is about the “long run,” for the “adequate and full protection, health and balance of our young people seven generations from now.” Nothing will fulfill this old, wise saying better than beginning this needed reinvestment, a reinvestment of our minds, our sweat, our ingenuity and our money, in our greatest asset: our free public schools.