Too much of the public is missing from public education.
As a people, we recognize the economic value of education, but we under-invest in our schools, both financially and in terms of civic capital. With America's students and schools facing unprecedented needs, and education budgets under enormous pressure, it is time to drastically ramp up civic investment in public education.
Our public school system — one of the great achievements of American democracy — is not just a service for the public to consume. It is a lifelong compact among Americans to continually renew our nation's future, to be actively supported by all citizens, whether or not they have children of school age. It is vital to ensure a populace with the knowledge and skills to succeed in, and create, good jobs. Indeed, Americans view education as a core value as well as a key service, according to research by pollster Celinda Lake. So, what does civic investment mean, and why is it so important today?
"Take an informed interest, put in time, and get political," the National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education declared this year. It is essential for the American people to better understand the economic and civic costs of educational failure. While there are multiple challenges to creating an equitable system of quality public education, it will not be realized without the vigilant, knowledgeable and active support of the American people. They must demand and expect three things: educational excellence; accountability of elected officials and school leaders for quality education; and adequate financial resources for public schools.
Begin by being well-informed about what public education is — and is not — doing for our young people and our country. Citizens should learn what contributes to, and what hinders, a high-quality public education. They should carefully scrutinize candidates and education ballot initiatives and vote for ones that support and promote quality public schools. Civic investment means attending school board meetings and education budget hearings, and peppering elected officials — in person and in writing — with key questions: How do you plan to provide adequate funding for public schools? How do you support the goal of college-and career-readiness for every student? What do you think are the best ways to evaluate school and student performance?
This is already happening in some communities. But in a nation with more than 50 million K-12 students and 14,000 school districts, this kind of civic activity is essential for every community.
Active citizenship is critical because of the profound connections among education, the economy and our collective well-being. Poorly educated individuals fall behind in our society. Poorly educated nations fall behind in the world.
The corollary, as we see in many East Asian and Northern European countries, is that investment in education pays high dividends. As former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise said: "The best economic stimulus is a high school diploma." An educated population means more rewarding, high-paying jobs, which pump money into the economy and build community strength.
Instead, we risk a vicious cycle of declining educational outcomes and declining economic fortunes. U.S. schoolchildren have fallen behind their counterparts in too many countries on too many indicators — math and science performance, timely high school graduation, knowledge of history and the arts, and in college readiness and matriculation.
At the same time, our economy has been stalled or going in reverse for too many Americans for too many years. The litany of economic problems is also familiar: anemic growth, joblessness, stagnant wages, too little productive investment, growing poverty, economic insecurity and rising inequality. The best long-term jobs and growth strategy requires that citizens speak out often, loudly and insistently for quality public education.
If we leave these educational and economic circumstances unchallenged, we will disenfranchise millions of children from the American dream, dilute our democracy and compromise our nation's future.
It won't be easy. State education budgets are being hit harder this year than at any time since the recession began in 2008. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 37 states are cutting their K-12 education budgets this year — at a time when 1 in 5 children lives in poverty, 1 in 10 is without health insurance, and national school enrollment is up by a quarter-million. (Notably, Maryland bucks the trend by increasing funding by 4.6 percent.)
The state funding crunch is likely to be made worse by the federal government's fiscal problems and demands for budget cuts. The United States needs to get its fiscal house in order, but all budget cuts are not equal. Slashing education funding is a cut that just keeps on cutting. Educational opportunities denied mean foregone skills and knowledge, poorer career and life outcomes, and a weaker economy and nation for us all. If we choose not to properly educate our young people, we will suffer the consequences for generations.
Civic investment — being well-informed, voting, and keeping the pressure on officials to support quality education — is the alternative to public passivity. If we recognize that educational opportunity and success are foundations for a strong democracy and a thriving economy, we need to be engaged trustees of that most American of institutions: our public schools.
Wendy D. Puriefoy, an expert on school reform and civil society, is the founder and president of the Public Education Network (PEN), the nation's largest network of community-based school reform organizations, which includes the Baltimore-based Fund for Educational Excellence.