The Economic Bailout Is Not Enough: The Case for Obama, Education, and the Longer View

12/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Martin Carnoy Professor of education and economics at Stanford University

Stanford University's Linda Darling Hammond and New Leaders for New Schools' Jon Schnur, two of Barack Obama's main education advisors, wanted me to share their view on the importance of Obama's education plan for America's economic future. Here it is.

Yes, we have to respond to the economic crisis. But financial solutions alone won't safeguard our long-term economic and social well-being. The two presidential candidates have starkly different philosophies and priorities about investing in America's future possibilities, and nowhere more than in education.

Obama has said in every presidential debate that he will make education a top national priority. He has outlined a comprehensive plan of investments and reforms in early childhood education, public schools, and college affordability while calling for greater parental and civic responsibility in education.

Obama has argued we can't just bail ourselves out of this economic crisis. We need to teach our way out. Describing current achievement gaps as "morally unacceptable and economically untenable," Obama's $29 billion plan builds on his track record in Congress, where he championed successful legislation to recruit and train teachers, invest in math and science programs, and help hard-hit Gulf Coast communities attract and retain teachers after Hurricane Katrina.

By contrast, McCain didn't even mention education in the presidential debates until the last question of the last debate. His response focused on spending freezes and expanding school vouchers in Washington DC. USA Today reported that Obama gave twelve major education speeches in this campaign and McCain only two. And McCain hasn't introduced a major education initiative in his 26 years in Congress. He has voted repeatedly against most education investments including increases in Head Start, special education, after-school programs, recruitment and mentoring of teachers, class size reduction, technology, dropout prevention, and college loans.

Why does this contrast matter so much?

At a time when three-quarters of the fastest growing occupations require postsecondary education, our college participation rates have declined from first in the world to fifteenth. Our high school graduation rates - stuck at 70 percent - have dropped from first in the world to the bottom half of industrialized nations. Our students rank 35th out of the top 40 countries in math and 31st in science achievement. If these trends continue, by 2012 America will have 7 million un- or under-filled jobs in science and technology, "green" industries, and elsewhere due to a lack of skilled workers with post-secondary education.

Educational attainment and achievement drives long-term economic success and higher wages. In the U.S., the average college graduate earns triple the earnings of the average high school drop-out and double the earnings of high school graduates. We need high quality graduates prepared to rebuild many of America's key institutions--to staff our schools with effective teachers, keep our military strong, and fill millions of new "green-collar jobs" in a low-carbon economy. Fast growing economies, such as Singapore, Korea, and Finland, have been fueled for decades by an intensive focus on quality education.

Meanwhile, we face serious achievement gaps for low-income children and children of color. These gaps perpetuate inequality and shortchange our young people and our economy. Only one in ten low-income kindergarteners graduates college. Cutting the high school drop-out rate in half could net an increase of $150 billion a year in wages and taxes while reducing social service and prison costs. In a knowledge-based economy and an information-rich democracy, fairness is only possible if all of our young people can get a decent education.

Obama's bold plan blends investments and reform. It stimulates and supports state and local initiatives with a national focus and sense of purpose.

1. He will make an unprecedented $10 billion annual commitment to expand access and quality in early childhood education. Since every $1 invested in quality pre-school saves us $7 to $10 in future school failure and social costs, this investment could yield a return of up to $100 billion in savings for America.

2. He will focus on improving teaching. Teacher quality is the single most important determinant of improved student learning. For too long, teaching has lacked the respect, rewards and reputation it deserves. That's why Obama will recruit an army of outstanding new teachers with $25,000 service scholarships to teach in high-need subjects and communities. He will overhaul training for new teachers and ensure mentoring, common planning time, and career ladders allowing effective teachers to take on more responsibility and greater pay for serving as mentors and leaders. Through these programs, struggling teachers will receive help from skilled mentors. If they don't improve after intensive support, they will be removed from the classroom quickly and fairly.

He will improve salaries and reward teachers for working in hard-to-staff schools and subjects and for demonstrating excellence in the classroom, based on a fair and careful look at teacher practices, performance, and contributions to student achievement. To support better teaching, Obama will invest in quality school principals and assessments that capture critical thinking and performance skills needed to succeed in the 21st century.

3. He will invest pragmatically in what works--expanding funding for programs and projects that deliver results while improving or cutting funding for what doesn't work. He will increase the supply of good public schools by increasing federal spending both for charter schools and school district efforts to develop innovative and successful schools. He will launch an "Invest in What Works" fund to expand and study educational initiatives that have already delivered results.

4. He will make college more affordable, including an Opportunity Tax Credit providing qualified students with the first $4,000 of tuition and fees annually in exchange for community or national service. He has championed the expansion of Pell Grants, passed the Dream Act in Illinois, and pledges to eliminate financial need as a barrier preventing qualified students from attending college.

5. He will call on all Americans to take greater responsibility for our children's education. He urges parents to turn off the TV, put away the video games, and make sure their children attend school and do their homework. He embraces accountability himself and pledges to be the first American president to give an annual report to the nation on the state of education.

Barack Obama is the only candidate to make education a top priority in this presidential campaign. He is the only candidate to lay out a comprehensive plan envisioning quality education as a new civil right for all Americans. He is the only candidate calling for an historic commitment to both accountability and investment that will help America succeed and lead in our knowledge-based global economy.

At this crucial moment, that is the best rescue package this country can buy.