Make Education a Priority

8/19/21

Headlines this week are about as discouraging as can be. The tragedies that have befallen Afghanistan and Haiti and the worldwide resurgence of Covid-19 stand out; but on the home front, we’re confronted by a series of misdirected state-wide initiatives seeking (a) to inhibit the institution of mask mandates, (b) to impose chilling restrictions on school curricula and how that curricula can be taught, and (c) to obstruct voter access or otherwise politicize election oversight, purportedly to protect the integrity of elections but more likely to disenfranchise eligible voters. In the face of these happenings, I worry about American exceptionalism.

To be candid, my sense of our exceptionalism has always been with regard to the American ideal, rather than the American reality. I can’t abide the flag-waving pseudo-patriots who fail to recognize, acknowledge, or learn from our mistakes, whether here at home or abroad. For me, my sense of exceptionalism comes from our efforts to strive for a more perfect union — one that works not only for us, but for the betterment of mankind, generally. Those efforts, however, seems to be increasingly compromised, given today’s political climate and the current state of affairs with respect to our collective capacity for critical thinking.

One might look to our educational system to provide the pathway out of this morass, but that route doesn’t seem particularly promising. I dug up a discouraging OECD study that was published in 2018. While a little dated, the overall results probably haven’t changed all that much in the last three years. Under the OECD auspices, The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measured competency in math, science, and reading by 15-year-olds in 78 countries. Here’s a partial ranking:

The US is twenty-fifth on the list. How disheartening is that?!?

Virtually every problem we face — both at home and abroad — requires a well-educated population to assess the issues and devise appropriate policies or solutions. The Biden administration and the Democrats in Congress give a nod to the severity of this situation by considering education to be an integral part of our nation’s infrastructure. Funds appropriated for education, however, will likely only come if the Democrats in the Senate can garner the unanimous support of their caucus, as the Republicans have all but pledged to oppose this legislation. If this bill does pass through the reconciliation process, it seems likely to include funding for free (or at least subsidized) community college, universal pre-K, and public school construction, among other initiatives.

Whether you consider spending on education to be infrastructure or something else, given our relatively low level of competency in these fundamental skills of math, science and reading, this deficiency needs to be addressed. The Republican alternative of “just say no” puts us, and the world, in jeopardy.

The importance of the ancillary effects of the proposed spending can’t be overstated. Universal Pre-K will profoundly change the financial health of families that will enjoy greater freedom and capacity to enter the work force if they so choose — to say nothing of the societal benefit of being able to harness this additional talent. And at the other extreme of the educational timeline, the move to cover a greater share of the cost of community college will make higher education considerably more affordable to a wide number of people, mitigating their reliance on debt and allowing for a more timely accumulation of wealth — the gatekeeping requirement for realizing the American dream.

Spending for education is an investment that would have profoundly important payoffs. The converse is also true: Failure to make this investment would constrain our wealth and well-being and inhibit the social mobility that would otherwise be beneficial. It’s time for Republicans to get with the program.

Kawaller holds a Ph.D. in economics from Purdue University.