Health care is rightly dominating the national debate, but with children all across the country heading back to school, education, currently seated in the back row of the national classroom, is raising its hand and asking to be called on.
On Tuesday, President Obama will be giving a nationally televised speech on education to America's students, broadcast on C-SPAN and the White House website. On the same day, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Viacom are sponsoring a major conference in Los Angeles that will serve as the kick off of Get Schooled, a far-reaching initiative geared to developing solutions to the problems facing America's education system. (I'll be one of the speakers.)
Remember when the Washington establishment passed No Child Left Behind, shook hands, patted each other on the back, and checked education reform off its To Do list? Well, George Bush's version of education reform (aided and abetted by Congressional Democrats) turned out to be reform in name only.
This bipartisan breakdown is, of course, nothing new. Through the years, we've had presidents from both parties promising to improve our schools -- and failing to do so.
In the process, we've grown accustomed to the system's chronic failure -- particularly when it comes to minority students, where we are facing nothing less than an educational catastrophe, with shockingly high numbers of poor and minority students unable to read at grade level by the fourth grade.
In the face of this educational apartheid, we should have no illusions about what is at stake. As writer Mikel Holt puts it: "The old civil rights movement got us to the lunch counter. The new civil rights agenda is: can our kids read the menu?"
It's time to acknowledge that over 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education we are witnessing a de facto resegregation of our schools, with blacks and Hispanics more separate from white students than at any time since the civil rights movement.
In contrast, the last 30 years have been a boom time for America's jails, with new prisons popping up at a rate even McDonald's would envy, while the number of people living behind bars has quadrupled: "Over 2 million dissatisfied customers served."
Particularly troubling is the fact that close to 150,000 children are in custody and that high school dropout rates are in lockstep with the rate of juvenile incarceration. As a result, many of America's schools have become preparatory facilities not for college but for jail.
Time after time, when the choice has come down to books versus bars, our political leaders have chosen to build bigger prisons rather than figuring out how to have fewer kids in them.
How is it that we are willing to spend so much on kids once they are found guilty of crimes but so little when they are still innocent? What kind of society spends more than 10 times as much to incarcerate a child as it does to educate him?
It's time we start looking at education reform in bold and different ways, to stop protecting little parcels of partisan turf and start thinking outside the box. To consider the possibilities. To look past our own political backyards at what might lie on the other side of the mountain.
What I see on the other side of the mountain is a single-payer education system.
In a single-payer health care plan, the federal government provides coverage for all U.S. citizens and legal residents. Patients don't go to a government doctor -- they just have the government pay the bill.
And that's how it would work with education. In a single-payer education plan, the federal government, in conjunction with the states, would provide an education allotment for every parent of a K-12 child. Parents would then be free to enroll their child in the school of their choice.
In a single-payer health care plan, all citizens would be free to select the physician and hospital of their choice. And, unlike in our education system, no one backing single-payer health care ever suggested that patients can only see a doctor in their own district or can only be operated on at the hospital down the street. If we don't hold people's health hostage to the health of their property values, why do we do this with their children's education?
The single-payer health plan would be financed by a payroll tax. In education, the annual cost per child -- equalized for urban and suburban school districts across each state -- would come from the current education funding sources.
When it comes to quality control, in health care the guidelines incorporated by Medicare would be used to manage the quality of health-care services. In education, the government would be responsible for accrediting the schools among which parents could choose.
It's simple, sensible and, above all, just. And maybe instead of calling for an exorcist any time the words "competition," "choice" or "freedom" are used in connection to education, we can start singing hosannas for an idea that preserves what is truly public in public education -- the government, i.e. the public, paying for it -- while allowing creativity, innovation and parental empowerment to flourish.
What Abraham Lincoln said in his second annual address to Congress in 1862 applies powerfully to today's education crisis: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.... As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."
And when it comes to saving out children, there is not a moment to waste.