January 19, 2010

January 19, 2010 | Commentary on Education

Fix the U.S. Education System: It's In the National Interest

You don't need a grade book to realize that our public education system is failing to properly prepare our future leaders. With the national dropout rate at almost 30 percent (nearly 50 percent for African American and Hispanic students), the writing is on the chalkboard.

Still, there seems little urgency in Congress to address the sorry state of our country's education system.

Given our fiscal woes, it's easy to understand why lawmakers might be more concerned with jumpstarting the economy than with fixing the broken education system. But if policymakers continue to ignore the simple fixes that could improve education, we may be on a perilous path to even greater economic stagnation in the decades to come.

In a compelling report, three of my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation -- Dan Lips, Jennifer Marshall and James Carafano -- argue that our country is quickly losing its global competitiveness because of our failure to produce enough scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

According to a 2006 Program for International Student Assessment exam, 15-year-old American students placed a dismal 23rd out of 29 participating countries in mathematics. And in science, students in 16 countries outscored American students.

This matters, of course, because our country desperately relies on mathematicians and engineers to remain at the cusp of technological advances. For example, Silicon Valley is synonymous with the iPod and iPhone, thanks to the innovative drive of countless scientists and engineers.

Of course, we benefit from the good work of scientists, doctors and mathematicians in other ways, too. The United States leads the world in the fight to find a cure for cancer and AIDS. And thanks to our country's engineers, we are building safe and reliable roads, planes and automobiles. In short, we all benefit when our education system succeeds.

As my colleagues write (their report is titled, "Improving U.S. Competitiveness"): "For years, the U.S.-dominated science and technology fields filed record numbers of patents, which in turn empowered its military and fueled its economy. But times are changing. China has gained ground in electrical engineering and computing."

Thus our education system's shortcomings effectively threaten our national security.

Unfortunately, the answer for many is to simply increase federal spending on education. That's been done again and again, including last year when the so-called "stimulus" package doubled the Department of Education's budget.

Lawmakers need to consider other alternatives to truly bring about the necessary improvements. Money isn't the problem -- we're shelling out some $12,000 per student every year in many cities.

The real problem is the opposition to reform and competition from so many entrenched special interests in the education sector. Teacher labor unions furiously oppose meaningful reforms that could increase competition. These include expanding school-choice options for parents.

Increasing vouchers, for instance, would allow parents to decide where to send their children to school instead of forcing them to send their children to their neighborhood's failing schools.

The failure to prepare tomorrow's leaders in math and science is a threat to our country's global standing. For far too long, policy makers have turned a blind eye to our crumbling public education system. This is no longer exclusively an education issue -- this is now also a national security issue.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation.

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Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
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