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The New Public Option

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Over the past several weeks and months, there has been much discussion over the controversial idea of a public option for Americans without health insurance. While the merits and the flaws of such a health care plan have been tirelessly debated, we can all agree that it is time to create a public option in our education system. All Americans who cannot afford to enroll their children in a private school should have the option of sending them to a public school that meets certain minimum standards.

There was a time when we challenged ourselves and the world in the field of education. Following the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik, President Eisenhower worked to establish the National Defense Education Act. The bill invested millions of federal dollars into all levels of public education. While only 15% of Americans attended college in 1940, over 40% Americans attended college by 1970. The President made it abundantly clear that the United States would not take a back seat amongst nations in terms of education. Instead, America planned to set the education standards for which the world met.

While we have set the world standard on how to bail out our banks and car companies, we have denied our children their constitutional right to "the pursuit of happiness." Although lawmakers deemed these large corporate conglomerates "too big to fail," there is nothing that is more important to our economy now and in the future than public education. Education is what launched the United States into its role as leader amongst nations, and at this pace it will inevitably lead to our demise.

As General Stanley McChrystal urged the president to rapidly increase American investment in Afghanistan to prevent the deterioration of the country, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan must offer the same urgency to Mr. Obama with regards to his own country. At some point, we must shift our concern from the youths of Afghanistan to the youths of America. The situation is in dire need of attention. Nowhere are we failing the next generation of Americans more than in large cities. Fourteen major cities have a graduation rate less than 50% including Detroit, Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Denver and Houston. Before even discussing changes in the curriculum, attention needs to be given to just keeping the student population enrolled.

While graduation rates are higher outside of the larger cities, students are still not being equipped with the tools they need to compete in a 21st century economy. If we cannot stimulate the minds of our youth, no amount of economic stimulus can save the future of our economy. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 18th in education among industrialized nations. Specifically, students in the United States rank 17th in science and 24th in math worldwide. In reading, only a third of our students are scoring in the proficient category. Overall by the time American students reach 8th grade, their curriculum is already two years behind that of other top performing nations. While over 200 million Chinese learn to speak English in their public schools, the United States seems content on keeping their students monolingual with a failed language education system. If education is the currency of the future, we must keep borrowing from the Chinese.

How has the United States responded to this global challenge in education? We continue to lower our standards. While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a major step in education reform, it has inadvertently created a system where states continue to lower the expectations bar. In 2007, only 18% of Mississippi students scored proficient in the standardized national reading test. However, 88% scored proficient in the standardized state reading test. While Mississippi can be considered an extreme, a Department of Education report acknowledged, "state-defined proficiency standards are often far lower than proficiency standards on the NAEP." While under this system test scores have improved slightly, our student's education level has remained constant. As states are under enormous pressure to show improvements in test scores, standards are lowered. While politicians avoid future trouble, our children inherit it.

Even our once seemingly monopoly on higher education has eroded in recent years. While ranking 2nd in the world in older adults with a college diploma, the U.S. has slipped to 8th in the world in young adults with a college diploma. As other countries continue to provide numerous incentives for their students to attend universities, the United States seems content in allowing higher education to climb ever higher out of the reach of ordinary Americans. Furthermore, China and other Asian countries have created a higher education system that is far more useful in equipping its students with the needs to survive in a 21st century economy. More than 50 percent of undergraduate degrees awarded in China are in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, compared to just 16 percent in the United States. While we are focused on creating litigators and lawyers, China and our competitors are creating the entrepreneurs and engineers of the future.

Education reform is not about a single bill, but rather a fundamental shift in our nation's mindset. Maybe instead of focusing on the probability of a team in March Madness winning the tournament, we focus on the probability of a team graduating. While parents, teachers, and students all appear appalled with the status quo, no party truly seems interested in tackling the necessary reforms. One necessary piece to the puzzle is expanding the school calendar. The 180 day school year is based on the agrarian calendar, a time when children would spend summers assisting their parents in the field. As the economy has changed in the past century, so has the need for adapting our school calendar to meeting the growing demands of a globalized world. The average European school year is 195 days, while the average East Asian school year is 208 days. It will be impossible for young Americans to create the next generation of jobs, if we are not competing on a level playing field.

Educational standards have to be raised for students, teachers and parents. While this shift in our mentality is most important in reforming a broken system, financial investment has its role to play. In too many areas across the country, school boards are making decisions based on economics and not on education. More and more schools across the country are transitioning from a five day to a four day school week. As the economy has turned sour in this recession, funds for education have dissipated. One Minnesota superintendent recently complained, "There just aren't that many places to cut anymore. We've cut the last 10, 12 years and there's no place to go, so now we'd have to cut basic programs." If we can find money for the bankers and the auto dealers, we can find money for our students. As we consider legislation on expanding health care and creating jobs, no factor can produce the former and the latter in the future more effectively than a strong system of public education.