Education: Investment or cost-center?

Let's be clear, it's not about money. Education is about opportunity, so why limit it to the basics?

I'm returning to the education issue, again, because of two threads in the comments that need to be restated or clarified.

First, there is the argument that I am a liberal saying we need to spend more on education. I didn't write that. I wrote in the first posting in the series that the United States since the 1980s has taken a basics-oriented approach to educationEducation is how society invests in its future, not how it minimizes the cost of getting kids into the workforce. and it has failed. Second, I'm not suggesting spending more is the answer, though it may be part of the answer. It certainly seems to be part of the current policy of the Bush Administration, which is spending more on education as a percentage of federal spending and in real dollars than any administration ever, as I explained in the second posting. The idea I think we need to embrace as a country is that by investing in a broad-based educational system that offers the maximum opportunity to learn and explore knowledge is the only rational approach to national economic security in the information age.

I didn't say that schools should teach morality, though several commenters suggested I did, one saying that "programs" that teach a book called Heather Has Two Mommies would constitute success in my book.

Instead, I wrote that narrow basics-oriented education, introduced in the Reagan era, have produced lower graduation levels and less prepared citizens. There's no doubt that this notion of basics-only teaching is a Reagan-era idea. Anyone can look at statements to that effect and the history of the budget, which shows a definite change in priorities in federal spending.

I didn't write that we need to teach tolerance in schools, but that treating kids as individuals with different paths to success is a good idea. We don't need "programs," we need well-stocked labs where kids can experiment, we need literature classes where they can explore ideas, we need trigonometry as well as special education, orchestras as well as behavior contracts for kids with ADD.

When there's a kid who wants to learn, why would we ever say "no"?

The family does need to do a lot more of its own moral educating, but that doesn't mean the schools don't also need to do a lot more skills-and-specialized-knowledge teaching. We also need some dangerous ideas in schools, too, because children shouldn't be conditioned to shy away from controversy, even when it treads into territory where their parents have fixed ideas. Too often, the conservative agenda has urged schools to avoid ideas that run counter to the comfortable notions that define polite society.

The binary more/less argument has nothing to do with conservative values, because George W. Bush is spending more money and still getting less because the schools are too narrowly defined to produce the knowledge- and serviceworkers that dominate in today's economy. While there are some good public schools, there are plenty of awful ones—and few that offer any curriculum beyond those cherished basics.

After 25 years of this can we not see that the lack of paths to more complex studies within the public schools is choking kids' accomplishment? there's something wrong with the feedback system we call democracy, if raising questions about our kids is too liberal. The disaster that is American education is a conservative thing. Since Reagan, even though we've spent massively greater amounts on government, primarily military spending, we've underinvested in the schools. Spending on schools went up, but it should have soared if the United States was going to compete with emerging economies by transforming itself into a high-level knowledge society. That's quantifiably obvious.

Instead, we get interactive TV and the idea that, if someone can afford it they can purchase some knowledge over the Internet. Reagan wanted us to eat his dog food and now it is all we can digest. Americans have been made into good consumers, not active democrats in control of their republic.

There's also no question that the emphasis on "basics," which clearly includes anti-science and anti-intellectual prejudices, has stunted our youth. "Personal accountability" is important, but not if there are no rewards for succeeding. So, if you think it's fine that we tell kids to learn to add, subtract and multiply, but that if they demonstrate that competence there is no further advancement without "private" spending, then we've missed the target for a public education. Education is how society invests in its future, not how it minimizes the cost of getting kids into the workforce.

If anything, I am centrist on schools, because I believe they waste a tremendous amount of money on programs that add nothing to the intellectual capacity of students. We'd do a lot better if there were months dedicated to science and language like there are months for black history and women's history. We've neglected the soaring heights young minds can reach because of the one-dimensionality of basic education with a few programs tacked on to remediate historical wrongs.

I also believe that lavish investment in children is the key to creating a prosperous future, when that early spending is translated into economic and cultural wealth. So, the keystone to educational success seems to me to be not more money, but a much more generous interpretation of what kids deserve to be able, if they demonstrate their abilities, to continue to learn for free throughout their childhood. Once we have those higher standards for education in place, the budgetary realities will fall into place as we consider the benefits of spending on schools versus, say, subsidies for oil companies, wars and "tax relief."