“Education is much more than schooling. It is the whole range of activities by which families and communities transmit to a younger generation, not just knowledge and skills, but ethical and behavioral norms and traditions.”
--Republican Platform, 2012
Today, on the second day of the Republican National Convention, the local schools in Manchester, New Hampshire are opening their 2012-2013 school year. Faced with an $8 million deficit, the district was forced to cut over 100 staff positions; one of the results is that the average class size will now approach forty students.
The GOP, in its platform, rightfully points out that education is “much more than schooling,” But schooling is clearly a cornerstone, and only 4% of discretionary spending heads that way. Compare that number, for example, to the 59% of discretionary spending that goes to defense. Is that all our kids are worth at a time when teachers are over-burdened and underpaid, when facts and science are under attack, when our schools—the physical infrastructures in which our children spend a quarter of their lives—are falling apart? 4%?
The GOP platform rightfully argues, though, that money doesn’t equal success. According to a 2010 study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, we are second only to Switzerland in spending per student, yet lower-spending countries (Finland, for example, which spends a third less than we do) have better outcomes. So in this the GOP is right: it’s not just about the money. Democratic programs—and Democratic educational expenditures—haven’t gotten us where we want to be any more than conservative approaches promoted by the GOP.
Both parties have failed us, and will likely continue to unless someone has the courage to redefine what education means to this country.
Recently I had a conversation with a couple of people who were waiting in line with me at our local postal center here in Bedford, a town which borders Manchester. Bedford had recently become the center of a brouhaha because of a controversial program, the International Baccalaureate (IB), an initiative sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and available at our local high school. (Not many months earlier we had also garnered national attention when our high school battled furiously with parents over the inclusion of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, so I guess it’s no surprise that casual conversation in our town might turn to the subject.) I was drawn by one man’s argument in particular: Since he didn’t have any kids in the school system, he said, he shouldn’t have to pay the portion of his property taxes that went to the schools. In his mind, he received no benefits from the schools and was just being overtaxed for something he didn't want or need.
Being polite (yes... sometimes I am), and not wishing to cause a scene when I was merely trying to ship a pair of pants back to LL Bean, I let the comment slide. But it struck me as bizarre. How is having an educated younger generation not in everyone’s best interest? These are the next generation of leaders and business owners and scientists and educators. Why would we not all see the benefit of educating them?
Education, apparently, just isn’t all that important to most of us. It's top of mind for a few weeks every fall (mostly, we must admit, because of back-to-school sales), or perhpas when teachers' unions tussle with public contracts, but then the subject quickly falls off the radar. And some—like the man in line at the postal center—don’t believe it should be any of his concern at all.
And then it occurred to me: The GOP should completely change its position on education, completely reframe the argument. How? Two words: National Defense.
Want to destroy a way of life? Easy. Let the rest of the world get smarter than you and they’ll go and figure out how to grow their way of life faster than you grow yours. I don’t care how many WalMart, McDonald’s and Starbucks stores we scatter across the world, the people with the brains eventually become the people with the money and the power. If we want to maintain and grow our way of life, we must educate the generations to come. And that means changing the way we think about it.
Historically, education has been topical ground for the Democrats, a narrative wrapped in the myth of success. But what if the narrative changed? Imagine if a small percentage of our defense budget were allocated to an expanded definition of "defense," to education, boosting its meager 4% of discretionary spending to something higher, something that would give us room to pay our teachers more and repair our crumbling scholastic infrastructures…
The GOP, of course, sees taking money out of traditional defense as anathema, making us soft, hurting the war on terror and, ultimately, weakening our place in the world. But I’ll say it again: the true threat to our place in the world isn’t whether we have 10% fewer armaments than we do today. The true threat is losing our educational advantage. I don’t care how many bombs we have; if the next couple of generations are stupid, they’ll just use them to blow things up.
Still, as the Mercatus study shows, money isn’t the whole story. Budget will help us reboot our educational system, but if we truly believe that education is one of the keys to defending our nation’s success, then we need to return to the kinds of thinking that spurred us in the past. We need to marry conventionally conservative rigor with creative methods of learning. We need to involve community and family and friends in ways that harken back to the involvement we saw in decades past. We need to involve businesses and promote entrepreneurship because that’s one of the ways in which our country can truly lead. We need to embrace the conservative notions of accountability with the progressive notions of academic freedom. And we need to embrace curiosity and a quest for knowledge, wherever that may take us.
Most importantly, none of us can any longer afford an attitude like that of the man in line at the postal center. Education is about all of us. Caring about our kids is part of caring about our country. It’s something we used to do very well, and it’s time we did it again.