Two basic functions are essential to democratic societies: educating the young and defending citizens from attack. But in the U.S. today, quite different attitudes have developed about each of these functions.
In a nutshell, our nation's schools are considered failures, while the armed forces are beyond reproach.
This double standard is not good for either area. Education is doing better than is generally recognized, but a drumbeat of harsh criticism, along with funding cuts, may discourage further needed progress. Meanwhile, the military's shortcomings are being overlooked as politicians vie to not only maintain but even increase defense funding, which could lead to wasteful spending.
For evidence of this dangerous double standard, look no further than the Republican Party platform in Tampa. This document declares that the military "has carried America to victory from the Caribbean and Central American to the Balkans and Southwest Asia" and pledges to stand by "our heroes," the "men and women who wear our country's uniform."
The Republican platform also calls for a "consistent and sustained investment" in the military and denounces the mandatory cuts in defense spending slated to occur if Congress fails to override the across-the-board cuts in federal spending, or "sequestration," contained in last year's debt ceiling deal. More specifics can be found on Mitt Romney's campaign Web site, which proposes to set core defense spending for the next several years at a floor of 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This proposal would mean a boost in defense spending of $100 billion for 2013 and an additional $2 trillion over the next ten years compared with the Pentagon's current budget, according to a CNN Money analysis. Governor Romney has not disputed this figure.
In essence, Romney and Republican Party leaders are saying that greater honor and more money will address all of the military's needs. This attitude ignores the fact that we are already the biggest military spender in the world by far. The U.S. accounts for 58 percent of the total amount spent on defense by the world's top 10 military powers, according to George Washington University's Face the Facts USA project. We spend almost six times as much for defense as China, the next highest spending country with a population four times that of the U.S.
We need a strong defense, and the U.S. has the best military forces in the world due to this national commitment. We should be proud of our troops and recognize their dedication and accomplishments but also remember how much support we give them to do their jobs.
In addition, we should acknowledge that the record of the American military over the last 50 years has not been one of consistent victories. While this record includes successes in restoring constitutional government in Grenada, defending Kuwait from Iraqi invasion, and eliminating Osama Bin Laden, it also includes shaky stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan, failure in Vietnam, and an unsuccessful attempt to rescue diplomats at the American embassy in Tehran. As these and other examples illustrate, our military record is an amalgam of successes, failures, and standoffs.
These failures and standoffs stem from a variety of reasons, such as international political and social factors, poor national intelligence, or lack of public support. But the Republicans' demands for higher military spending ignore this mixed record and the complex reasons behind it.
In the area of education, the observations and recommendations in the Republican platform are far more negative. The platform criticizes the U.S. educational system for showing "no substantial increases in academic achievement or high school graduation rates" over the last 50 years despite "enormous amounts of money" being spent. It asserts that "if money were the solution, our schools would be problem-free" and includes no pledges to boost education funding or protect schools from the possible harms of sequestration.
Like the military, the U.S. education system has not experienced consistent success, for a variety of reasons.
Since the early 1970s, student achievement in reading and mathematics has improved for younger students but has not increased significantly for high school students, according to the long-term trend results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Gaps in test scores between minority and white students have also narrowed over the past 30 years for some groups, especially Latino students. The percentages of female, black, and Hispanic youth who go on to college have also increased over the past three decades.
It's a wonder student test scores have not gone down given that the pressures on our schools are greater than in the past. Every child with a disability must be educated regardless of cost, and usually in the regular classroom. Schools throughout the country include growing numbers of children who do not speak English as their first language. Schools must also comply with demands to raise test scores for all groups of students or face penalties.
Schools must devote attention to all these needs while dealing with state and local budget cuts of a magnitude not seen for decades. Over 300,000 education jobs have been lost since June 2009, and the national student-teacher ratio has increased since 2008. Districts facing teacher shortages have also cut preschool and kindergarten programs and shortened the school week or school year. U.S. teachers must cope with all of these stresses while being paid less, relative to other full-time, college-educated workers, than their counterparts in other industrialized countries.
Although some progress has been made, we need to do better. Too many students drop out of high school, and too few finish post-secondary education. Many other countries in the world have overtaken the U.S. in educational attainment.
Maybe the Republicans are onto something when they maintain that ample funding and a high level of respect are crucial ingredients for success in a major national endeavor. But why have a double standard? Why not use the same approach for education as we have with the military?
The U.S. is currently near the top of industrialized countries in education spending, but imagine what our schools could accomplish if we spent six times as much as the second highest-spending nation. Further, following the military example, we should consider all men and women who work to educate children "heroes."
Educating our young people is just as important as defending our society. A national agenda that treats both with the same urgency not only would strengthen our economy and improve our society in many ways -- it would also reap benefits for our national defense.