02/23/2011 03:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Spending Cuts: You Get What You Pay For

My living room is a graveyard for second-rate musical instruments.

It's true. At a glance, there are seven stringed or hallow gadgets scattered against walls or the crevasses between furniture. It's a collection I've been building since high school and almost every instrument I own -- guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo -- is mediocre at best. This is understandable, most purchases were financed via the meager savings of a college student who could not justify spending anything over $250 for a mere hobby.

And so, while my instruments can get the job done, you'll likely never see them on stage at Carnegie Hall. They play the songs I wish but constantly fall out of tune. Until paired with other instruments of better quality, their tone is satisfactory and moderately pleasing. Occasionally, they suffer extended periods of neglect, to which end, I never feel guilty. They were not, in reality, significant investments.

Here's the thing -- you get what you pay for. So, as much as I cannot complain about the limitations of my guitar or fiddle, politicians and policymakers are in no position to lament the conditions of our school system. After all, they are the ones to propose massive teacher lay-offs and funding cuts.

For superior schools and students, both the federal and state governments must invest in education. Unfortunately, current attitudes and policy decisions indicate that, in light of financial troubles, schools can make do with less. With negligible resources, downsized personnel, and cuts to "superfluous programs," such as the arts, we are somehow expected to bolster the image of America's school system and perform triage on issues like troubling dropout rates and inadequate college readiness.

We're not miracle workers.

Many strapped for cash districts, such as New York City, are facing the prospect of drastic teacher lay-offs. Aside from having an obvious negative impact on student progress, such decisions would work counterproductive to policies that are intended, at least in theory, to improve student performance. For example, schools are in the process of adopting Common Core State Standards, a rigorous national curriculum that is slated to go into full effect by 2014. As states implement the new standards, students will need support in mastering the skills of this overhauled curriculum. With an emphasis on high-order thinking, CCSS lends itself to classes that readily offer sufficient teacher-student interaction. Without enough manpower to carry out the objectives of this curriculum, its rigor and ambition is futile.

Common Core State Standards are additionally intended to strengthen the global competitiveness of our schools and students. Amongst many Americans, this is a ubiquitous concern. A decline in our international math and science rankings has caused veritable anxiety and amid a burgeoning fear of China's dominance, we have been told that this is our "Sputnik Moment."

However, with the way things are going, it seems highly improbable that our "Sputnik Moment" will reap outcomes as victorious as the Space Race did decades ago. To assert America's dominance, NASA received financing from the federal government whereas today's schools and other vital institutions are allotted less funding and less support (see Wisconsin). Without the proper backing and resources, it will be impossible to beat out our competitors.

If current jockeying over spending serves is an indicator of where our values now lie, then the collective consciousness of many Americans seems to have abandoned any sort of social responsibility. Scores of excessively wealthy individuals are content to dodge higher taxes, even at the expense of essential public programs. And while the prospect of teacher-layoffs is upsetting, the slashes proposed by the GOP are egregious and in some cases, unconscionable. Americorps? The National Endowment for the Arts? Clean energy programs? Planned Parenthood? Not only do many American's depend on the services these institutions provide, but these programs are responsible for initiatives vital to both the present and future of this country.

We've arrived at an impasse. The fundamental structures and institutions of America have long been defined by a standard of excellence and while many of us still expect this, few are willing to pay for it. As such, the enriching programs, quality of services and contributions that supposedly made us "great," will suffer and diminish. Rarely does excellence materialize from thin air. And so, if we are unwilling to invest in our country and its people, than much like my dime-a-dozen instruments, our nation will be good, not great.