Newly arrived immigrants and American citizens with deep roots always have the same message for their children—study and get a good education because that is how to succeed. Knowledge is power and education is the key to prosperity, and everyone knows it. That is why Thomas Jefferson and others advocated for a public school system and Jefferson founded one of the best public universities in America. As Jefferson said, "Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. . . . the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected." Past American leaders understood the role and responsibility of government in education—to make individuals and communities stronger and more successful, businesses competitive and successful, and America safer and able to elevate its citizens' standard of living and quality of life. Do our present leaders share that belief and reflect that vision?
Unfortunately, and rather shockingly, education has become deeply politicized. When I was on the Education and Labor Committee in Congress, some members showed their contempt for public education by saying "government-run” schools, instead of public schools. They worked then, and still do, to discredit educators and dismantle the public school system, or to divert funding to private schools. Schools and teachers have received withering attacks from state legislators across the country who have tried to pass legislation undermining the curriculum, denying science, and trying to force the teaching of creationism.
Some politicians don't take ideological votes against schools; they just find it an easier target when cutting funding, and they don’t fully consider the consequences. Benjamin Franklin's words echo across the ages as a reminder and a warning: "The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to establish and endow with proper Revenues, such Seminaries of Learning, as might supply the succeeding Age with Men qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country."
Cutting school budgets is a short-term solution that will result in an even greater long-term problem. The US was already lagging behind other countries before the tea-party state and national representatives took over state houses and the US House. While NH is still doing well, a 2010 CBS series found that compared to 30 comparable countries, American students were #25 in Math and #21 in Science. Nationally, only 75% of our students graduate from high school. No lofty words can change the meaning here. We are not number one, and as the Vice President's wife, Dr. Jill Biden says, "Any country that out-educates us will out-compete us."
Money alone won’t solve all of our problems. But to cut funding when we’re already in a very precarious state defies logic and reminds me of the old and wise saying, penny-wise, pound-foolish.
So, how foolish are we being? The Economic Policy Institute prepared a report showing how we under-pay our children's teachers. Almost half of teachers leave within five years, mainly because they cannot get ahead and care for their own families on the low pay. The New York Times highlighted one teacher in a 3/2/11 article. A high-school science teacher in her second year of teaching in a city was only earning $36,000 a year and had $26,000 of school debt, no car, and no house. She had to move home to keep teaching. Sadly, this is not unusual. We are also cutting essential programs that help children catch up or keep up, and we are not preparing students for today’s high-tech and very competitive world.
After high school, it is now even tougher to pay for a technical school or college. The NH legislature cut funding to the university system a staggering 50%. New Hampshire’s 2010 college graduates were in debt an average of $31,048 (Union Leader 11/8/2011). Deep cuts are being made at public universities around the nation, and the national average debt for the 2010 graduate is $25,250.
It is time to talk to our families, our communities, and our legislators about the value and necessity of education. It is time to defend investments in education because they are investments in our children's future, our business' future, and our nation's future. It is time to save our schools.