Throwing schools out the window
Resource type: News
The New York Times |
By Nicholas Kristof
So this is what the Senate seems to be coming down to: keeping bridges and throwing students out the window. The effort to prune the stimulus package to make it more palatable to Republicans is focused on slashing money for education.
The proposed cuts, by various accounts, include $40 billion to help states (in large part with education budgets), possibly $14 billion for Pell grants, and $14 billion for other education programs (though late word from the Washington Post is that the Pell grants may have survived). The argument is that these would be ongoing programs, not a short-term stimulus, and conservatives are very wary of expanding education programs in ways that will increase the federal presence in the education space or the burden on taxpayers. They particularly don’t want Headstart and school construction in the stimulus. Mel Martinez says: “I love schools; I love children,” but he adds that such measures “don’t belong in this bill.”
He’s wrong, for a couple of reasons. First, the priority has to be to get the stimulus passed, and it’s better to err on the side of a big stimulus than a small one. I lived in Japan from 1995 through 1999 and saw how crucial it is for a government to act decisively – and, rather like Colin Powell’s doctrine of “overwhelming force” – with real power in confronting an economic crisis. Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers were all close students at the time of Japan’s mess, and that’s why they’re all determined to get enough of a stimulus and avoid a lost decade. And constructing schools or paying Headstart teachers delivers just as much economic stimulus as a new bridge or road; indeed, the economic multiplier effect is probably greater in low-income communities than in America as a whole.
Second, I’m increasingly of the view that our nation’s top priority — which I used to think was a national health care system — must be revitalizing our education system. The good suburban schools are great, and do just as well as Singapore’s or Hong Kong’s. But our inner city schools are a disaster, and they fail the students and our country’s economic future.
My thinking shifted partly after reading The Race Between Education and Technology, by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, one of last year’s most important books. As I wrote at the time, they argue that the central reason America became the most important economy in the world was its emphasis on broad education, at a time when Europe educated only the elites. Yet that edge has disappeared, and America is the only country today where parents are more likely to graduate from high school than their children. If we want to maintain America’s economic greatness, then we need roads and bridges, yes, but we also need a more educated work force.
We’re gaining a much better understanding of what works in education, and early childhood education is a major element of that. I haven’t visited a KIPP school, but everyone raves about their success rates. Improving teachers would help, which means a combination of four elements: lowering the barriers to entry, more rigorous assessment of teacher performance, pushing out more under-performing teachers, and more compensation. And of course, we need the good teachers in bad schools, not just in the best ones.
Yet if education is our greatest challenge with huge significance for our long-term economic competitiveness, it’s also precisely where states are likely to cut during this downturn. My ace economic colleague, David Leonhardt, made that point a few days ago. So if we can use the stimulus package to protect that priority — education — then doesn’t that absolutely belong in a stimulus package?
Steven Pearlstein at the Wash Post is so disgusted with the economic illiteracy of those attacking the stimulus package that he offers an excellent suggestion: including a measure in the package to train the Congress in basic economics.
Come on, senators, education is the best way to fight poverty, the best way to break the cycle of the underclass, the best way to ensure a broader distribution of opportunity in America, the best way to preserve our country’s economic competitiveness. And it’s just as good for stimulus purposes as repaving a road — and you still want to throw those school children out the window?
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company