Broken Schools Pose Transcendent Threat to America's Future

Javier Ortiz

4/3/2013 12:01:00 AM - Javier Ortiz

During the 2012 Republican National Convention, former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice addressed an issue that has been widely absent from any recent and serious conversation in American politics, ominously warning that the education crisis is “a threat to the very fabric of who we are.” As the United States remains preoccupied with rejuvenating a sluggish economy and combating rising deficits, education reform has largely been placed on the backburner. Yet, education has the power to reverse these afflictions and ultimately holds the key to creating sustainable, long-term economic growth and greater prosperity for more Americans.

The sad truth is that the United States education system has fallen behind, ranking 17th in the developed world according to Pearson Education, Inc. We need to act quickly and implement meaningful reforms; otherwise, there will be much greater uncertainty about our country’s future. There is a medley of changes that the government can undertake to improve our education system, ranging from increasing the length of the school year to implementing more English as a second language (ESL) programs. Such reforms would place America’s school year length back on par with that of other developed countries and address overlooked children who are falling behind simply because English is not their first language. And these are just a sampling of some of the policy alterations that our country should consider implementing.

One of the most meaningful reforms we could implement at the federal level is school choice. There are many different models for school choice, but the underlying principle is the same: allowing parents to send their children a variety of different institutions ranging from charter schools to private and public schools. The most common method implemented for bringing about school choice is educational vouchers, which allow parents and their children to receive a coupon of sorts that can be redeemed at a public or a private school of their choice.

Many states have already instituted some version of school choice and have seen encouraging results. In fact, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) – the largest voucher program in the country had a graduation rate 18 percent higher than students in Milwaukee Public Schools, according to a 2011 study. Even more astonishing is that the school vouchers cost $6,442 per student, less than half the $15,034 spent by Milwaukee Public Schools. Such results are not just limited to one example as Cato writes, “The overwhelming consensus of randomized controlled studies, the gold standard of social science research, has demonstrated that students attending schools of their choice perform as well or better than their public school peers.”

Unfortunately, the education battle is a two-front war and school choice won’t stem the education crisis among our adults. An estimated 90 million Americans are undereducated, resulting in an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent with many employers struggling to find skilled workers leading to jobs going overseas. America needs to develop a skilled work force to lower unemployment and spur job growth. Research from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project supports the importance of a college degree, noting that college graduates have been shielded “from a range of poor employment outcomes during the Great Recession, including unemployment, low-skill jobs, and lesser wages.”

Providing quality education will not only help every day Americans, but it will also reinvigorate the nation’s economy and usher in a new era of growth. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that adding 20 million post-secondary educated workers by 2025 would help create a more efficient economy and boost the gross domestic product (GDP) by $500 billion. This goal is lofty, but not unattainable, as only a little more than 30 percent of American adults currently hold a bachelor’s degree, primarily due to the costs associated with enrolling in an institution of higher learning. On average, students leave school with more than $23,000 in debt.

Our country’s elected officials should be working to provide greater access to affordable, post-secondary education for every American who seeks it. Yet, our system has struggled by failing to provide affordable educational options and thereby limiting opportunities. The United States has instituted a bureaucratic model known as accreditation that makes it difficult for institutions to offer educational opportunities. Under accreditation, colleges and universities must comply with a lengthy list of regulations and deadlines. Failing to miss a single step can be costly and often delay the entire process. The Heritage Foundation notes that “accreditation is a complicated, expensive, and time-consuming process.” This overly-burdensome process directly affects the education marketplace, creating high barriers of entry and reducing competition, making education as a whole more costly and unattainable. In order to lower the cost of post-secondary education, it is essential that the federal government reform the accreditation process by reducing regulations, while maintaining quality educational standards.

According to a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, “The United States’ failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country’s ability to thrive in a global economy.”

It is time that we started providing better and more affordable educational opportunities to our students, both the children and adults, so that our country can once again excel in the classroom and in the workplace.