Education is the best investment a country can make. Unfortunately, it is also the hardest. It demands significant capital upfront, requiring us to incur high taxes or forgo other government services. But its quarterly dividends will appear to be low or non-existent for a long time. This means investing in education requires patience and foresight, qualities not in abundant supply in contemporary America.
Compounding the problem is the fact that students — the primary beneficiaries — are not the ones shelling out tax dollars. That burden rests squarely on adults (some even childless) who believe they have no personal stake and therefore no incentive to fund education. And, worst of all, many middle- and upper-class adults are part of a vicious cycle undermining public schools. Parents, skeptical of the quality of public education, shift their kids to parochial or private schools. Because these families essentially pay twice — through taxes for public schools and tuition for private ones — they often push for smaller public school budgets to reduce their property tax burden. When public schools lose funding and motivated advocates in the form of quality-conscious parents, they become worse and prompt other parents to leave.
The result is that the kids who remain in public schools are often those whose parents cannot afford to exit the system. The pitiful educations they receive set them up for dismal economic futures.
Obviously, this is a simplified explanation of school finance’s political dynamics. But it illustrates my point — there is a collective action problem around education. Breaking problems of this nature takes bold leadership, foresight and political compromise. Thankfully, we finally have a president who understands this fact.
In his State of the Union, President Barack Obama proposed expanding preschool using federal-state partnerships, targeting those below 200 percent of the poverty line for a family of four. Part of a new legislative volley aimed at achieving a more egalitarian society, this suggestion resonates with liberals. No child should have their destiny dictated by the circumstances of his or her birth.
Unfortunately, conservatives have been characteristically recalcitrant. Their objections come in several forms.
Deficit-watchers decry further government spending in a time of debt. But these fiscal hawks should be cognizant of the ways in which these children’s educational failures create substantial drains on the future welfare state. Without a solid developmental foundation, kids fall behind in later grades. Many will drop out; others will barely graduate, with few skills and little preparation for higher education. Unable to obtain jobs in a competitive economy, they’ll require food stamps and housing vouchers. Many will turn to crime and drugs, and we’ll continue our costly mass incarceration. The choice is between an investment now or a fee later, after we’ve incurred a multitude of associated harms.
Conspiracy theorists argue that Obama is attempting socialist indoctrination, a swelling of the teacher unions’ ranks and general federal overreach. The indoctrination claim is silly; it turns out that pre-schoolers aren’t particularly receptive to Marxist critiques when there are nearby blocks to play with (and Obama isn’t going to unilaterally mandate the curriculum here, even if there were ways to influence child psychology to vote Democrat). The president’s other education policies indicate his ideological distance from the unions (just ask them how they feel about the charters or data-driven accountability backed by Race to the Top). And this doesn’t need to be federal overreach. States can work together to create great pre-schools, just like the National Governors’ Association did when it created the Common Core State Standards Initiative with the Obama administration’s sideline coaching and support.
Some object that pre-school just doesn’t have beneficial effects, saying it “fades out” such that any gains are gone after a few years in K-12 education. But that sounds like a critique of K-12, not pre-school. As part of a holistic education reform, this proposal is a solid one. Early schooling can set one up to take full advantage of the learning opportunities presented later.
An educated population is perhaps our only chance to innovate our way out of many problems in contemporary America: climate change, inadequate cybersecurity and many more. The only way to get there is together, with shared sacrifice by taxpayers and meaningful engagement with the political opposition. We desperately need Republican critiques, but they need to be good-faith critiques, not obstructionist ones; smart government, not no government. It’ll require patience, foresight, and compromise — but we can do this. We have to.
Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .