The crisis in education is "about to get much worse":
The Uneducated American, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word, that word would be “education.” In the 19th century, America led the way in universal basic education. Then, as other nations followed suit, the “high school revolution” of the early 20th century took us to a whole new level. And in the years after World War II, America established a commanding position in higher education.
But that was then. The rise of American education was, overwhelmingly, the rise of public education — and for the past 30 years our political scene has been dominated by the view that any and all government spending is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Education, as one of the largest components of public spending, has inevitably suffered.
Until now, the results of educational neglect have been gradual — a slow-motion erosion of America’s relative position. But things are about to get much worse, as the economic crisis — its effects exacerbated by the penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior that passes for “fiscal responsibility” in Washington — deals a severe blow to education across the board.
About that erosion:... Most people, I suspect, still have ... an image of America as ... unique in the extent to which higher learning is offered to the population at large. That image used to correspond to reality. But these days ... we have a college graduation rate that’s slightly below the average across all advanced economies.
Even without ... the current crisis, there would be every reason to expect us to fall further in these rankings, if only because we make it so hard for those with limited financial means to stay in school [compared to] their counterparts in, say, France. ... But the crisis has placed huge additional stress on our creaking educational system.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,... lost jobs ... in state and local education .... over the past five months [totalled] 143,000. That may not sound like much, but education ... should, and normally does, keep growing even during a recession. Markets may be troubled, but that’s no reason to stop teaching our children. Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing.
There’s no mystery about what’s going on: education is mainly the responsibility of state and local governments, which are in dire fiscal straits. Adequate federal aid could have made a big difference. But ... back in February centrist senators insisted on stripping much of that aid from the ... stimulus bill.
As a result, education is on the chopping block. And laid-off teachers are only part of the story. Even more important is the way that we’re shutting off opportunities.
For example,... generations [of] talented students from less affluent families have used [California’s community] colleges as a stepping stone to the state’s public universities. But in the face of the state’s budget crisis those universities have been forced to slam the door on this year’s potential transfer students. One result, almost surely, will be lifetime damage to many students’ prospects — and a large, gratuitous waste of human potential.
So what should be done?
First of all, Congress needs to undo the sins of February, and approve another big round of aid to state governments. We don’t have to call it a stimulus, but it would be a very effective way to create or save thousands of jobs. And it would, at the same time, be an investment in our future.
Beyond that, we need to wake up and realize that one of the keys to our nation’s historic success is now a wasting asset. Education made America great; neglect of education can reverse the process.