A National Task

An educated citizenry is the hallmark of America's democracy and central to the success of its economy. That was true at the founding of the republic, when Common Sense, Thomas Paine's call for independence, sold 112,000 copies in three months -- the equivalent of 17 million today -- to the remarkably literate colonial settlers of the time. It was surely true in the last century, as America rose to prominence and prosperity. Education provided a common language and a common civic culture to the immigrants who flooded our shores. America became the first country to require 12 years of formal schooling. After World War II with the GI Bill, ours became the first nation to provide widespread college education. Integrating America's schools was central to the effort to end segregation and address the challenge of equal opportunity for all. Our commitment to education has helped to forge the broad middle class that is the pride of America's democracy and the foundation of its prosperity.

Now, as we begin a new century, America's commitment to public education faces staggering new challenges. With 53 million students and 3 million teachers in 92,000 public schools (within 15,000 districts), simply keeping what has traditionally been a locally governed nonsystem running is hard enough. The new information age and the new global economy make education -- and lifelong learning -- even more essential to our prosperity. A new generation of immigrants requires the schooling vital for assimilation of our language and civic traditions. As communication makes the world smaller and generates a growing sophistication in packaging and propaganda, an educated, questioning, independent-thinking citizenry is even more vital to our democracy.

Americans understand this. They expect their leaders to make education a priority. They demand more from their schools. From Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, presidents have advertised their commitment to education in their rhetoric, if not always in their budgets. And at a state and local level, parents have driven a furious debate about schools: What constitutes an adequate education? What standards should be required? How can schools be made accountable? Over the past two decades, waves of reform at the local level have implanted higher standards and provided greater resources for schools.

Yet even as public spending on schools has risen over the last two decades, particularly at the state and local levels, the national debate about schools has been driven by a conservative mantra: Money is not the solution, something else is. Conservatives' ideological animus to public institutions makes public schools -- where one in four Americans work or learn -- a prime target. The exodus of whites from public schools in the South after integration and in urban areas of the North in the present day has provided opportunity for employing wedge politics against school funding. For two decades, conservatives have scorned public investment in schools, offering up instead a menu of alternatives to "fix" the schools: testing, phonics, English only, prayer, vouchers, zero tolerance, phonics, ending certification of teachers. They've gone from demanding the abolition of the Department of Education to seeking to supplant the common public school with a "marketplace" of private institutions, all the while opposing increased investment in schools.

President Bush, who made education a centerpiece of his "compassionate" agenda in the 2000 election, embodies this conservative animus. His No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reforms impose the most ambitious federal mandates on schools since the Great Society reforms of 1965. The centerpiece is annual testing for students that is used to measure school performance. Schools that do not show improvement on the test are "held accountable." Bush wanted to offer vouchers to parents with children in failing schools, despite the absence of evidence that voucher schools could do a better job. Stymied by liberals in this effort, Bush gained bipartisan support with a compromise: The bill provided students the right to transfer to another public school -- all while promising significant new funding to pay for school improvement. He then reneged on that promise, failing to budget even the funds he promised, much less what would be needed to provide schools with the help they need. Bush actually offered Turkey more money in a bribe to get the Turks to enter the Iraq War than he was willing to provide the schools to help them meet the new mandates imposed by his own legislation.

The president has since zeroed out funding for new school construction, cut funding for teacher education and failed to extend Head Start to all children eligible, all while allowing states to siphon funds from the program. And, most destructively, the president has insisted on his entire package of top-end tax cuts, resisting all efforts to provide funds to avoid the layoffs of teachers and cutbacks in school programs that states, facing the largest fiscal crisis in 50 years, have been forced to impose. Yet Bush will campaign on this record in 2004 as an education president.

Even if Bush had kept his promise to fund his education reforms, the national debate has simply ignored the scope of the challenge we face in educating the next generation of students. The furor around NCLB has distracted Americans from what truly is at stake. Simply consider the following:

This fall, 53 million students -- the largest number in our nation's history -- will attend public schools in America. Over the next decade, that number will begin to grow again, with nearly 100 million children in school by the end of the century. More and more of these students are from immigrant families, newly arrived on our shores and speaking little or no English. With one in five children raised in poverty, a significant portion come to school deprived of the healthy start vital to being ready to learn. One-third now qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. In New York City, it is 70 percent; in Detroit, 78 percent.

These students will attend schools that are aged, overcrowded and in need of repair. America's schools average 42 years in age, with the oldest often in the areas where the needs are greatest. The influx of students, particularly in urban areas, has led to the doubling of classes, to half-day shifts and to the conversion of trailers, closets, libraries and gyms into classrooms. One-third of all schools now use trailers as classrooms. In 1995, the General Accounting Office estimated that it would require $112 billion simply to bring the schools up to safe standards. A more detailed estimate by the National Education Association in 2000 included funds needed to update schools for advanced technology; it estimated the cost at $322 billion.

These same schools now face the largest wave ever of teacher retirements, as the baby-boomers begin to leave the workforce. At the same time, the retention rates of new teachers are shockingly low, with 20 percent of new hires leaving the classroom after three years. One reason is that the pay of starting teachers is among the lowest of all professions requiring a college degree with specialized training. Since 1970, average teacher pay has risen only one-third of 1 percent a year over inflation. Now women and minorities are no longer locked out of other careers, depriving schools of a trapped labor pool that could be had on the cheap. Teacher pay lags the most in the low-income urban communities that have the greatest need for experienced, skilled and committed instructors.

As they graduate, today's students will seek to enter colleges where tuitions and costs are rising at 14 percent to 15 percent a year. Federal grants for deserving students have not kept up with these costs, as the maximum grant now covers only 39 percent of public-school tuition, down from 84 percent in 1975-76. Students now graduate with debt burdens 85 percent higher than those of students a decade ago. And more and more are simply priced out of four-year colleges altogether. At a time when widespread college education is vital to our economy and our prosperity, our commitment to it is in question.

There is a legitimate debate about whether money is used efficiently by our schools. When more money is available, it is too seldom spent on meeting specific needs; rather, it is divided up in the same routine ways. After decades of reform fads that have come and gone, there are significant and legitimate disagreements about what reforms make a difference. But beneath the ideological posturing and legitimate debates, there is a common-sense agenda for public education.

Children should come to school ready to learn. That means having a healthy start, with good nutrition, health care and adequate shelter. Preschool is essential to provide the basic skills -- social, cognitive and behavioral -- vital to being ready for school. Children should attend schools that are safe, pleasant to be in, well-equipped, well-lit and not dangerous to their health. Schools must engage parents and ensure that they are involved and present as much as possible. Small classes seem to make a difference, particularly in early grades when individual attention can give slower starters a needed boost. With parents -- both couples and single -- working, rich and diverse after-school programs are both helpful to children and vital to the society. Skilled, experienced and dedicated teachers are indispensable. They need to be well-prepared and committed to lifelong learning and retraining, and they should be rewarded accordingly. Children should know from the start that college is both expected and affordable.

These are neither new nor revolutionary concepts. They don't encompass the latest fad in high-tech education, the latest vogue of small high schools or "whole child learning." They are the basics. And yet for a dramatic and growing portion of the next generation, they are out of reach.

For that to change, Americans need to hold their public officials accountable. It has been too easy for politicians like George W. Bush to parade as education reformers while refusing to make schools a priority in their budgets, and defaulting any effort to rally the nation to make the investments vital for providing the basics to every child.

The politics of this default are poisonous. In 1972, almost 80 percent of U.S. public-school students were white. By 2002, it had fallen to 60 percent. As Bush has shown, imposing unfounded mandates on schools, railing against failing schools and proffering vouchers that weaken the schools further, all the while defaulting on the basic investments needed, may well become a staple in the wedge racial politics that is the foundation of the modern Republican Party. In 2004, the president will boast about his historic reforms. Yet he ran up deficits to pay for tax breaks for the already affluent, to add $100 billion a year to a military budget that is now nearly as great as the rest of the world's combined, and to spend $87 billion to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan for one year alone. At the same time, he argued that we could not afford the funds needed to avoid debilitating cuts in public schools, much less to double the federal commitment to public schools -- from 2 percent to 4 percent of the national budget -- and to lead a renewed commitment at all levels to educating the next generation.

Neither our democracy nor our prosperity can easily withstand this posturing. The workers and the citizens of the next generation will necessarily come in increasing measure from today's poor and working-class children. And while the test-score gaps between white and black -- and white and Hispanic -- children have begun to shrink, the gulf between rich and poor achievement in schools remains enormous. If those children are not educated well, it is not simply the economy that will suffer but our democracy itself. To meet this daunting but inescapable mission, we must make a renewed commitment to public education. Those who seek to dismantle or starve the common schools should be scorned as the cranks that they are. We need to commit ourselves as a society to make available to the next generation a high-quality public education, from preschool through college. That isn't a task for the federal government alone, nor for the states or the localities. It requires new resources from every level of government. It is a task for the nation.