We all watched in horror last year as the real estate market popped like an over ripe tomato, shaking the entire economy with the violence of its implosion.
As people lost homes and jobs, tax revenue at all levels of the government shrunk precipitously. Deficits — already out of control after eight years of an administration bent on passing a crippling financial burden on to our generation — exploded.
In many states, shrinking property tax and income tax revenues led to the threat of massive layoffs where our society could least afford them: in the public school system.
The stimulus package passed by the Obama administration staved off this threat — for a little while. As the stimulus money, always intended as a band-aid rather than real reform, dries up, the specter of teacher layoffs has again reared its ugly head.
The public school system was in trouble long before the current crisis. As salaries remained stagnant over the last few decades, many of the best and brightest teachers fled the schools in favor of higher-paying, higher-status jobs. Today, many teachers come from the bottom of their class into a field with long hours, meager salaries and demanding students.
Despite their best intentions, American public schools have fallen far behind both their private and foreign competition.
Public school students are about to fall even further behind. Without stimulus funds or a substantial property tax base, most schools are facing significant budget deficits. Many of them will take the same, horrifying measure of cutting budgets for after school activities, laying off support staff and firing the teachers who have not been rendered immune to reform by tenure.
The activities and electives that keep students most engaged in their education will disappear.
Class sizes will expand; test scores will contract. Children will be left behind, unable to gain entry into selective colleges or compete in the global marketplace.
Education is the cornerstone of a liberal democracy, the silver bullet for the problems of society.
It reduces crime rate, unwanted pregnancies, unemployment and the rapidly expanding inequality between the haves and the have-nots. Good public schools help to level the playing field and promote socioeconomic diversity in college and the workplace.
Without a great system for educating those who can’t afford the cost of tuition or the time to travel to private schools, we risk severe damage to the middle class and to the American dream.
If students in public schools can’t keep pace with their competition from kindergarten all the way through high school, no amount of work in college will allow them to overcome the deficit.
Comprehensive education reform has fallen out of the public consciousness: President Bush tried and failed, and the fallout makes another attempt unlikely.
Plus, with the state of the economy and a pressing need for financial, immigration, and energy reform, President Obama and the Democratic Congress have more than enough on their plate. Education should take first priority. Pumping money into the public school system — increasing teacher salaries to attract the best and brightest back into the system, retaining the activities that hold student’s interests and shrinking class sizes so that students receive more personal attention — is the most important step in putting the economy back on track.
America’s economy has always been driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. And those qualities can’t always come from the upper class.
That didn’t work for Rome, or the British Empire, and it won’t work for the United States.
The American dream requires that all hard-working citizens have the opportunity to join the world economy, regardless of their financial background.
Education is the ultimate economic stimulus. Without major public education reform — on the federal, state or local level — any other measure we take to shore up our economy is merely a band-aid.