The United States spends a far smaller percentage of its national budget on education than other developed–and developing–nations. Not only do we lack the skilled workforce we need; we are accumulating masses of dysfunctional citizens who imperil our society.
The only solution is to aggressively place education at the top of our federal budget priorities, where military spending now sits. We must increase the federal government’s share of public education financing from 8 to 25 percent.
Nothing less than a plan for total national mobilization will suffice. Band-Aids for education reform are obsolete. While some parts of the country already have schools capable of achieving maximum student outputs, a critical percentage of the school-age population resides in densely populated urban areas where education productivity is either stagnant or accelerating downward. This abandonment of inner-city millions constitutes a waste of human resources that places the nation at risk. The danger is not simply that we will lack the skilled workforce and decision-making capacity we need. From burglars and car-jackers to suicide bombers, we can also expect continuous rebellions fomenting fear and terror.
Ending these dangers starts with committing the dollars needed to give every inner-city student the same opportunities to learn that many suburban students now have. Federal increases would pay for higher salaries, better staff development programs and improved working conditions to attract and keep qualified teachers. The money would also pay for modernization and reconstruction.
We have recognized that the mass-production of science and engineering graduates in China and India is challenging America’s commercial competitiveness. But we’re ignoring equally threatening shortages and systemic scarcity above and below those super high-tech occupational categories. We have a critical need for translators of Arabic, Urdu, Pashto and Chinese. There are only seventy Arab studies departments in our 4,000 colleges and universities, and just sixty-seven Chinese studies departments.
At the bread-and-butter level we are also failing to produce enough qualified technicians and mechanics to service our cars, wire our houses and fix our plumbing. Well-meaning efforts to end the “stigma” of vocational education have left us with nothing to replace it. It’s one more gap that penalizes the economy and breeds youthful bitterness.
Establishing and maintaining a first-rate education system will allow the nation to draw on its greatest supply of untapped human resources: the children of our inner cities.