Commentary

REICH: America, this is your ‘Sputnik moment’

Marketplace Staff Jan 12, 2011
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Commentary

REICH: America, this is your ‘Sputnik moment’

Marketplace Staff Jan 12, 2011
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TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: There are some red faces in the Idaho legislature today. A group of lawmakers was getting a presentation on some new education software. A whole bunch of them flunked a pop quiz on state history, like, when Idaho became a state.

Commentator Robert Reich says that’s exactly what he’s been saying.


Robert Reich: In a recent survey of 34 advanced countries, American students came in 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading.

President Obama calls this a “Sputnik moment,” referring to the wake-up call we had in the 1950s with the Soviet’s successful launch. The result then was billions of dollars to make sure our children didn’t fall behind. In subsequent decades, big business pushed for additional education spending to make sure we didn’t fall behind in the global competitive race.

But now we’re going in the opposite direction. The tax bill signed by the president in the closing hours of the last Congress widened the budget deficit, inviting cuts in public education. Pell Grants for disadvantaged young people to attend college are already squeezed.

Less visible are cuts the states are making. Starved for revenues, 33 states are slicing school budgets, meaning more kids to a classroom and fewer courses. And 43 states are reducing funding for public universities. Many qualified young people won’t be able to attend.

Now I’m not one of those who believes the only way to fix what’s wrong with American education is to throw more money at it. Teacher performance also has to be squarely on the table, and bad teachers let go. But given the increasing population of young people and their educational needs, and the new competitive challenge of skilled workers all over the world, more resources are surely needed.

So why are we allowing these big cutbacks? Partly, I think, because America’s biggest corporations are no longer pushing for school funding. Increasingly, they’re getting the talent they need all over the world. Many now have research and development centers in Europe and China. Meanwhile, America’s well-off families have enough money to send their kids to good private schools, and to pay high tuitions at private universities.

But without the political support of big companies and the well-off, public education has become vulnerable. Which means less investment in our nation’s most important asset — our kids.

Ryssdal: Robert Reich was secretary of labor for President Clinton. His most recent book is called “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.” David Frum‘s up in the rotation next week.

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