We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation‘s sixth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue facing their generation. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-one states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Bryan Wilson Stucki of Virginia Tech University and Hannah Moon of Brooklyn College Academy in Brooklyn, New York. This is one of the high school finalists. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. The Editors

In his State of the Union address, President Obama argued that the United States must "win the future." He said that we must reinvent ourselves and reinvest to remain competitive. Education is one of those areas, and there is no doubt that a strong education system will enable us to compete in a global economy. However, critics contend that in this troubling economic climate, sacrifices need to be made. This is true, but shortchanging our educational system to meet short-term objectives is not an acceptable policy. Investments in education will only come to fruition after many years, and halting progress in this field will require that many more years to catch up. Putting our future at risk is not an adequate standard by any means.

In my own state of New York, the state has passed a budget that includes a $1.3 billion dollar reduction in school aid, along with a property tax cap that would limit schools’ prime source of revenue. While either one on its own it hard enough to handle, this double whammy of cuts strangle school districts and put them in a position where they are faced with reduced aid and an inability to raise needed revenue. In my own district, the budget was only able to pass when it included cuts to every department on every level. In smaller districts, such as Illion school district in upstate New York, the proposals have threatened to cripple the school district, forcing it to look at mergers with other districts. The district was promised more funding several years ago, and while it received modest increases in state aid for a few years, funding froze in 2009 after the state experienced economic troubles, was cut last year, and will be cut again this year. This leaves it with a deficit that is 10% of the current year’s budget. With no new sources of aid and a withering tax base, the only way Illion can survive is to make cuts for the third consecutive year. Governor Cuomo has said that schools will be able to survive by tightening their belts, but one can only tighten a belt so much before reaching the bone.

Still, critics say that the United States spends an exorbitant amount of money on education in terms of spending per student compared to other nations. This is true; the US spends more than most other nations per student. However, much of this difference is in part due to the huge income disparity that exists between low and high-income students. For example, Illion School district spends approximately $15,000 per student, several thousand below the average for New York State. Syosset, a wealthy school district on Long Island, spends over $28,000 per student, nearly twice that of Illion. It is this spending gap that distorts the reality of education in New York, and throughout the country. Despite this difference, however, both school districts stand to lose about the same amount under Governor Cuomo’s plan. The $1 million dollar reduction would be a drop in the bucket in Syosset’s $188 million budget, but it represents 4% of Illion’s budget. Add to that a provision in the plan that benefits school districts that obtain most of their revenue through taxes, which generally includes the most wealthy school districts, and it seems that rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor.

However, we cannot invest more in education without making appropriate policy changes. Pumping more money into a struggling system cannot cause substantial changes overnight. After Bill Gates invested $2 billion to improve the nation’s schools, results were mixed, with some school districts seeing modest gains in graduation rates. But even Gates himself admitted that his plan was not effective, and shifted his focus to train teachers. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program follows a similar route by awarding states that implement more rigorous standards rather than blindly giving away funds. However, philanthropists and the federal government cannot fix our nation’s education system. Efforts from state and local governments are just as vital in providing quality education for the nation’s students.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama proclaimed that the United States is experiencing a “Sputnik moment” once again. He claimed that the investment in research and education fifty years ago did not allow us to compete with the Soviets, but to surpass them. If we are truly in a Sputnik moment, then the need for education investment is not important, but crucial if we are determined to win the future.