From Sputnik to the War on Terror, U.S. Education as a “National Security Crisis”

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) earlier this week released a little-noticed new report warning that “the education crisis is a national security crisis.”

The report notes that American students perform poorly on international tests compared to other countries that are making far better progress, and cites results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment produced by the Institute of Education Sciences, showing U.S. students rank fourteenth in reading, twenty-fifth in math, and seventeenth in science compared to students in other industrialized countries. Further, more than half of Americans aged 17-24 can’t pass standardized qualification tests to join the military.

The CFR report continues:

The lack of preparedness poses threats on five national security fronts: economic growth and competitiveness, physical safety, intellectual property, U.S. global awareness, and U.S. unity and cohesion, says the report. Too many young people are not employable in an increasingly high-skilled and global economy, and too many are not qualified to join the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records, or have an inadequate level of education.

Alarms that the state of American education poses increased national security risks are nothing new: it was first framed as such when the Soviet Union beat the U.S. into space with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. The extraterrestrial spread of the Red Threat sparked a vast increase in federal funding to education to close the “achievement gap.” President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s further expanded the federal role in education to assist the poor, leading up to the creation of the Department of Education in 1979, and culminating in the Reagan administration with the 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” which warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

In that time, federal spending on education has exploded, more than tripling between 1960 and 2000 in real, inflation-adjusted dollars. President Bush’s No Child Left Behind added 39% in discretionary spending to the Department, while $115 billion of President Obama’s $800 billion, 2009 Economic Stimulus Bill was directed to education. Dubbed “the largest-ever single federal investment in school reform,” those stimulus funds include billions of dollars in discretionary funding controlled by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who proudly declared that the “$4.35 billion dollar Race to the Top fund dwarfs the combined sum of discretionary reform funding available to all of my predecessors as education secretary.”

Yet despite these vast expenditures, the U.S. educational system continues to produce students with third-rate math, science, and language skills. And the CFR report confirms that the problem is not one of spending—the U.S. invests more in K-12 education than most developed countries, yet achieves far worse results.

So what do the report’s authors now recommend for solving the crisis?

The Task Force proposes three overarching policy recommendations:

• Implement educational expectations and assessments in subjects vital to protecting national security. “With the support of the federal government and industry partners, states should expand the Common Core State Standards, ensuring that students are mastering the skills and knowledge necessary to safeguard the country’s national security.”
• Make structural changes to provide students with good choices. “Enhanced choice and competition, in an environment of equitable resource allocation, will fuel the innovation necessary to transform results.”
• Launch a “national security readiness audit” to hold schools and policymakers accountable for results and to raise public awareness. “There should be a coordinated, national effort to assess whether students are learning the skills and knowledge necessary to safeguard America’s future security and prosperity. The results should be publicized to engage the American people in addressing problems and building on successes.”

Unfortunately, while recommendations such as the first and third are certainly well-meaning and “aspirational,” top-down, centrally-tracked, outcome-based goals have not and will not produce students whose individual talents and interests have been nurtured and developed to their highest potential.

Happily, the second recommendation gets to the point: Choice and Competition. The shining exceptions to the failed schools under the direction of the Department of Education are various school choice programs across the country. Washington, D.C.’s voucher program has probably received the greatest attention, where students largely from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds are succeeding at high-quality private schools at a fraction of what it would cost if they attended traditional public schools. Even today’s “communist threat”—China—increasingly educates its children in private schools.

Thus, the real solution is for government to get out of education all together and return it entirely to the private and community level. The Independent Institute offers the Independent Scholarship Fund, providing privately-funded tuition assistance allowing parents to select among the more than 300, largely small private schools in the San Francisco East Bay. Recipients, drawn from among our area’s poorest, and coming from the worst school districts, achieve a median grade point average of 3.5, and 100% of the high school recipients graduate.

Even such lavish per-student spending figures as New York state’s more than $17,000 annually fail to capture the total Americans are paying in taxes for government education. On top of numbers like the $115 billion from the 2009 Stimulus bill cited above, one would have to search out and total local, county, and state funding and subsidies to public schools. Then add in private funding, of which foundations, corporations, and individuals across the country provide millions per year, hoping vainly they can “reform from within.” Suffice it to say, these resources, freed as private educational “venture capital,” would provide far more than enough money to spur the most dynamic, high-performing education choices in the history of humankind. How many more “crises” do we want to declare before accepting this basic fact?

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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