With the elections over, the country quickly shifted gears, moving its focus from candidate qualities and voting outcomes to pressing policy issues. Only hours after the final tallies were in, the spotlight moved to the debate on taxes, the federal budget and the deficit.
This is as it should be. Every poll shows that the economy is foremost on everybody’s mind. The recession has been long and painful for most Americans. Even though we may be on the upswing, deficit problems create an immediate future of painful choices. The next few years will require funding cutbacks from which no public institution is immune.
But as we look to a full financial recovery, the economy is not the only critical hurdle we face. Education must also be right up there on top of the agenda, and here, too, we will face painful choices.
Why is education so important? For several reasons. One, it is directly related to the economy and the quality of our workforce. Two, it is directly related to social stability and equality. Three — and here is the part that makes the next year so important to our schools — nearly every federal major education bill is up for renewal. Decisions made by the 113th Congress (Jan. 3, 2013 — Jan. 3, 2015) will have an impact on generations to come.
(For those policy wonks or detail lovers, this includes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka No Child Left Behind; the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Program; the Community Development Block Grant program; the Workforce Investment Act; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; the Higher Education Act; and Education Sciences Reform Act).
Despite this uncertain future, there is some good news in education. The day before the presidential election, the Pew Research Center released an important report: using newly available census data, it told us that record numbers of young adults successfully completed high school and college. College graduation is now at record levels for key demographic groups including men and women; blacks, whites and Hispanics; foreign and native-born Americans. This bodes well for both individuals and the larger society.
Unfortunately but understandably, the report received little public notice. It was released just as Americans were about to go to the polls and just as large parts of the eastern seaboard were being battered by Hurricane Sandy.
What is less understandable is why education received so little attention during the presidential election where it was rarely mentioned. But this does not reflect the public’s perspective. A recent poll by Rasmussen Reports reveals that 61 percent of American voters rate education as a very important issue. That’s fourth on the list behind the economy (80 percent), health care (66 percent) and government ethics and corruption (66 percent). It’s ahead of taxes, national security/war on terror, energy and immigration.
Concern about the state of our schools is not confined to the general public. One powerful example of others who exhibit a deep commitment to this matter is California Gov. Jerry Brown’s fight for Proposition 30, a sales and income tax increase to fund K-12 schools, community colleges and state universities. It passed with 54 percent of the vote. Another is the College Board’s Don’t Forget About Ed, a grassroots campaign to elevate education in the presidential campaign. It reached more than 12 million people through Twitter, more than 3 million a month through Facebook and almost 200,000 through You Tube.
As the budget debates unfold, it is very likely that educators will be forced to work with fewer resources. It is unreasonable to expect that they will be able to do more with less. But part of the negative impact can be mitigated through innovative solutions such as increased use of technology, reductions in overhead costs, consolidation of services, and more freedom for schools to make their own decisions. But success and failure during these trying times will depend on the full involvement of those who understand education best: teachers. Without their participation, our students will suffer greatly.
In the classic movie, “All About Eve,” Bette Davis, before an anticipated confrontation, tells her guests to “fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Some of the bumps cannot be avoided, but others can be lessened if they play their cards right.