Democrats, legislatively decimated but flush with executive power, have decided to make increased spending on public education the centerpiece of their domestic agenda for 2015. The issue feeds a key political base – the entrenched education establishment, primarily public sector labor unions – and has a mom and apple pie appeal to voters, especially independent voters.
President Barack Obama recently unveiled a plan to provide every American who wants one a "free" two-year community college degree. Free, in this instance, comes with a $60 billion price tag for taxpayers. At the state level, incoming Governor Tom Wolf has pledged to restore non-existent public education spending cuts to sate the financial appetites of the state teachers’ union which backed him in the last election.
The problem is this policy push is focusing on the wrong aspect of public education. Rather than debating spending increases, we should be asking: what are we getting for the money we already spend?
The answer: not enough.
Despite the fact spending on K-12 public education has increased at more than double the rate of inflation for decades test scores uniformly reveal no corresponding improvement in student performance. Here in Penn’s Woods, a failure to address what everybody but the labor unions understand is a public pension crisis has resulted in any new revenue being sucked up to fulfill pension obligations leaving virtually no new money available to actually benefit students.
Taxpayers, still struggling to shake off the effects of the Great Recession, are understandably demanding more accountability for the substantial chunk of their income already forcibly taken from them so they can continue to own their own homes. There is reluctance, if not an inability, for many working families and senior citizen households to pay more, especially when outcomes are not improving.
Worse, public education today has become so disconnected from the real world it is failing to educate students for the openings that await them in the job market. This "skills gap" is striking. According to a 2014 report by Byron Pitts on the CBS program 60 Minutes, more than three million jobs in this nation are unfilled because employers cannot find employees with the needed skills. Over 500,000 of those jobs are family sustaining, well-paid manufacturing jobs with benefits. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found one in three manufacturers in its region faced a labor shortage because of what it termed a "mismatch of skills."
Who is to blame for this "mismatch of skills" and public education’s collective failure to educate to opportunity? The short answer is everyone. That is because the focus has been almost exclusively on funding rather than on the core reason why we have public education in the first place, which is to equip students to successfully earn a living.
Among those who are focused on the problem is Dr. Vince Bertram. A former teacher, principal and school superintendent he today heads a nonprofit organization called Project Lead the Way. During a recent interview on American Radio Journal Dr. Bertram advocated for a renewed emphasis in our public schools on the so-called STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. These are the skills students lack coming out of both high school – and all too often the nation’s colleges and universities – with the core skills needed to be hired and trained for today’s more highly technical jobs.
Unfortunately, both President Obama and Governor-elect Wolf remain mired in the politics of the past. Simply advocating more spending will not solve the problem. Instead of fighting to feed entrenched political interests effective leadership would engage all the stake-holders in the education process, from taxpayers to labor unions to educators, in reinventing public education to meet the needs of both students and employers.
Nothing less than the future health of our nation’s economy and the well-being of the next generation of Americans are at stake.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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