America Needs An Education Imperative

In past election cycles, education was ignored.  Completely ignored, really.  This go-round, though, lots of candidates are offering lots of education proposals – some on-target, some amiss, none terribly aspirational.  While scattered, these ideas spur us to imagine a coherent blueprint that elevates the futures of millions across America – an Education Imperative that overrides all other priorities.

Education sits in a context. Machine intelligence (computers, software, robotics, artificial intelligence) is advancing at a blistering pace, but our obsolete K-16 education model remains geared to last-century’s routine jobs.  Despite unparalleled wealth, the United States has systematically slashed education budgets, particularly in rural and inner-city communities. With a growing number of marginalized adults, the future of our democracy is at risk.  I’ll be blunt. America needs an Education Imperative. Without one, we’re headed for collapse. 

This Imperative should start with our youngest children. Study after study finds ten-fold returns from investments in early childhood care, education, and nutrition. It’s the best possible use of education dollars, giving millions the start in life that leads to becoming happy, contributing citizens. If anything in our society deserves to be viewed as a “right,” it should be providing every defenseless toddler with the kind of support they need to not be totally screwed over in life.

Our democracy depends on providing all kids with compelling educations, and public K12 schools are essential to this goal.  Counter to popular belief, there’s remarkable innovation taking place in our public schools, despite stultifying accountability measures. These schools, especially in under-resourced communities, need the funds to modernize decrepit facilities and curriculum.

If you’re looking for heroes in America, you’ll find them in our classrooms. Facing enormous challenges, our teachers fight daily for their kids, even risking their lives to protect children from shooters armed with NRA-endorsed assault weapons. We need to pay our educators a fair salary, provide them with effective professional development, and trust them as professionals.

In K12 education, the U.S. made the exact wrong policy choice two decades ago. Instead of re-inventing school for the innovation era, we doubled down on our century-old model with a high-stakes regimen of test-driven accountability.  Time to empower schools to foster creativity, curiosity, audacity, and collaboration — indispensable traits in the innovation era.  Imagine America’s boundless future if our schools help children develop into creative, determined problem-solvers prepared to take on the many challenges we adults swept under the rug.

Our nation’s 1,500 community colleges can elevate life prospects for millions of Americans — from teenagers to retirees.  Instead of serving as two-year wannabes of a four-year degree, community colleges should prioritize short-term immersions that equip students for emerging career paths.  Far better to time-effectively upgrade the skills of employees in dead-end jobs, rather than relegating them to months or years of devastating unemployment.

Our universities need to be better, more affordable, and more accessible. They should give credit for mastery and work-study, not seat-time. Replace lectures with collaborative, interdisciplinary challenges tied to real-world problems.  Make courses widely available, granting micro-credentials to anyone completing a short-term immersion.  End the arms race to be more selective, with the cushiest campus.  For the 45 million adults holding $1.5 trillion of student loans, we should make these loans interest free.  End the bureaucratic horror show Betsy DeVos inflicts on public-service loan forgiveness programs, and expand these programs to part-time volunteer work. Embrace creative income-sharing models.

This Imperative is something our nation can afford to do, and can’t afford to ignore.  We can elevate the futures of millions of Americans with an audacious plan focused on four priorities — early childhood, modernizing under-resourced public schools, increasing educator salaries, and fostering innovation in K12 schools and community colleges.  For those rightfully concerned about fiscal responsibility, let’s debate the long-term national benefits of this Imperative versus tax cuts for the wealthy, an over-bloated military budget, the capital gains tax beak, or propping up dying industries. 

While an Education Imperative should pressure universities to be better and more affordable, we should be skeptical of the headline-grabbing calls to eliminate public-college tuition and expunge student loan debt.  These proposals, offered by some leading presidential candidates, are massively expensive, inequitable, and lack economic logic. 

In eliminating tuition for public colleges, we’d require taxpayers to subsidize the privileged kids who dominate many public college campuses.  Colleges should charge market rates, and use these monies in part to cover room, board, fees and tuition costs for students most in need of financial support.  Spending $1.25 trillion to eliminate student loans may appeal to well-educated primary voters still paying off debt, but this proposal subsidizes those who knowingly borrowed to obtain a credential conferring financial and/or societal advantage.  For each person who took out a student loan, another sacrificed to avoid debt — turning down their expensive first-choice university, defraying college costs by working long hours, relying on families who drained savings, living at home and commuting, dropping out early, or foregoing college entirely.

Politicians and voters, particularly well-educated Democrats, need to appreciate that many Americans have created fulfilling life paths without college degrees, yet are often looked down by the more educated.  Our society glorifies the university degree, despite scant evidence that college students learn much or graduate prepared for real-world challenges – in a world where it’s easy to learn without costly, formal instruction.  It’s offensive and elitist to require that those who forego college subsidize those who pursue a university credential. And we need the economic grounding to recognize that budget allocations are ultimately borne by the general taxpayer, even if superficially linked to some form of wealth tax.

The 2020 presidential election is bringing national attention to education’s role in shaping America’s future.  Citizens, particularly in early primary states, can challenge candidates with probing questions.  How does our increasingly innovative world affect education priorities?  Why did No Child Left Behind leave millions behind, and what role should the Federal government play?  Do we need a more balanced perspective about college, and how do we address its run-away costs?   But it’s possible no national candidate recognizes that this Education Imperative needs to supersede every other national priority.  In that sorry case, we need to effect big change the way it’s always happened — one school, one community at a time.  And take heart!  America is at its best when local communities rally to an aspirational goal.

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