Reapplying Reform: From health care to schools

Oranges within Apples by Osman Azami

Now that health care reform has finally passed, the opposition has stepped up the fear-mongering, proposed taking the legislation to courts arguing the mandate is unconstitutional, or, even better, threatened to block the reconciliation fixes that they previously claimed were needed to fix “backroom deals.” Good luck! For the most part, it’s time for the President and Congress to take up the next legislative priority: perhaps education reform.

Luckily, this social reform doesn’t seem to face the same bitter partisan politics and empty rhetoric by the opposition. If not, it’s going to be interesting to see the partisan divide this time around. “This is the first step in destroying the greatest education system the world has ever known,” might say some member of Congress. “This socialized government takeover will not be tolerated by the American people.” Likewise, the education system in the United States is clearly broken. And recently, education finally has really attracted plans for sweeping changes from the Race to the Top program to a bill currently under consideration in the Florida House to eliminate tenure pay and link pay to improvements in test scores. To describe the massive health bill in the simplest terms, think of Paul Krugman’s three-legged stool metaphor that needs each leg to stand: outlawing discrimination by insurance companies based on preexisting conditions, instituting a mandate for health insurance, and providing further subsidies for people who can’t afford health insurance. But for education, there are no preexisting conditions, mandates, or subsidies, right? Well, actually. . .

Reforming the public, specifically secondary, education system in the United States requires the same drastic overhaul as health care reform and deserves a very similar response.

Are there “preexisting conditions” in public schools? Or are schools inherently equal across the board and are we all given the same opportunity? Well, we don’t need to look further than Collier County to find the gross injustices. According to the Collier County school district website, Immokalee High School earned a grade of “D” after its “F” last year and 90.3% of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch while Barron Collier High School maintained its “A” grade and only 20.73% of its students fall in the same demographic. How do we fix this? Outlaw “discrimination.” Drastically rezone school districts to accomplish granting each student a chance at a decent education. Is it fair that one public school educates students with the most means and parents with the greatest educational background while the other school educates students with immigrant agricultural worker parents with a high school degree at best? In fact, in the landmark “Brown v. Board of Education” Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, Chief Justice Earl Warren declared “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Well, schools are still “inherently unequal” and it shows. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, 12% of the nation’s high schools produce half of the nation’s dropouts. Rezoning will certainly enrage those with more means—similar to whites who opposed desegregating schools—but not doing so is a social injustice. We learn from those who surround us, and if one public school consistently earns an “F” and another earns an “A,” students at the former school aren’t learning much. Let’s change that.

Now the analogy gets a little confusing here. We do mandate education and offer subsidies, right? Students have to pass a certain test to graduate, and have to reach a certain age before they can drop out. Now this sounds drastic: mandate high school graduation by the age of 21, or at least make it a goal sometime later. After all, it’s only high school. If we want to look at this from a fiscal perspective, the extra cost or burden high school dropouts place on society in their lifetimes is likely far greater than the extra cost we pay to fund their extra education. In order to be a productive member of society that doesn’t resort to crime to stay alive, every person needs a high school education if not a college degree to survive in the 21st century.
And how do we do we impose the extra burden on teachers without funding it? Recent history will prove that an unfunded mandate will be meaningless. So, fund it. Unlike health care, the United States doesn’t spend more than any other nation as a percentage of GDP on education. According to a UN Human Development Report, as a percentage of GDP, the United States ranks 37th on education expenditures, spending about 5.7% of its GDP. However, our country actually ranks 18th among 36 advanced nations in educational quality as examined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In this case, more money—well spent, however—will lead to better results. Pay teachers well, but align pay not only on seniority but also performance.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but the same basic formula applies. The United States’ future isn’t bright with mediocre to poor education. If the CBO were to estimate the reform’s effect on the deficit, they would have to look far out to see the savings. Like health care, although we don’t reform health care or education to address deficits, they will lower them in the long-run. It is a social imperative and an economic necessity. Reforming education requires the same massive overhaul.

Over the last fifty years, education standards relative to other countries have fallen drastically. What’s changed? Have teachers gotten worse? Are we spending less? Actually, no, the percentage of GDP spent on education roughly remains the same; however, the family structure has changed and the education system hasn’t adapted. Over the last fifty years, more women who formerly full-time homemakers were teaching their children basic values and work ethic have joined the work force and are spending less time with their children. Now, families rely on schools to teach their children what was originally considered in the realm of parents, especially character. What message does it send to the American public if schools overwhelmingly focus on skills needed for college and careers rather than general life skills like building social relationships and maintaining integrity. Schools need to place an extraordinary emphasis in elementary education on integrity and work ethic to fill that gap and continue that through high school. Do you think Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco highlighted the epitome of corporate greed and dishonesty in America? Just wait.

Unless we act now, a flawed education system will lead to more dropouts, more crimes, more corporate accounting scandals, and a generation that literally stands still. If we keep saying we don’t want to leave a mess for our grandchildren to fix, let’s make sure our grandchildren will at least know where to start in fixing the mess.

Look for the next post on a more in-depth discussion of "preexisting conditions" in schools and a partial analysis of Senate Bill 6

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