As national media pundits spent the past half week picking apart Wednesday's State of the Union address (and endlessly analyzing John Madden-style "slo-mo" replays of Justice Alito), I sat disappointed as the issue of education barely registered a blip on the radar.
What a difference a day makes... On Monday, the "State of Education" roared into the media spotlight as the Administration outlined its plans to overhaul "No Child Left Behind." As the CEO of a global non-profit that teaches entrepreneurship skills to at-risk youth, I can tell you first-hand that the potential impact of the new policies introduced by the Obama Administration simply cannot be understated. Moreover, the need for a program that awards accountability and tangible results is long overdue and desperately needed.
The budget proposed by President Obama reflects a continuation of providing new financial resources while promoting competition over formula funding. If designed well, this is a route towards driving more effectiveness and efficiency into the system. The preliminary announcements on the reauthorization process provide reason for hope but the devil will be in the details and ultimately what emerges from what will hopefully be a productive congressional debate.
Fixing our education system is an issue that maintains a broad base of support across both parties. Success is contingent upon the ability of political leaders to forego their differences and act in a bipartisan matter with laser-like focus on the implications of policy on the children in schools, not the adults representing special interests.
The need for increased collaboration and results is now. This past summer, the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University and the Alternative Schools Network issued a study that contained alarming (alas not surprising) information. We are in a "persistent high school drop out crisis" where 6.2 million students between the ages of 16 and 24 dropped out. Further, a 2006 study commissioned for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that almost one third of all public high school students -- and nearly one half of all blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans -- fail to graduate from public high school with their class.
In addition to being the right thing to do, allocating significant funding within the federal budget at a time when local education resources are beyond strained is a wise investment in our future. As noted by President Obama during his State of the Union address, education is "the best anti-poverty program around."
My organization, NFTE, provides entrepreneurship education programs to young people from low income communities. We see exceptionally smart and gifted kids whose talents would otherwise go undiscovered. More often than not, these kids aren't given a chance because they are not taught the basic knowledge necessary to find their own pathway to success. Taking children from low income areas and helping them to tap into their potential helps combat poverty and crime while breeding a new generation of entrepreneurs, strengthening the very backbone of our nation.
In his January 23rd New York Times column entitled, "More (Steve) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs," Tom Friedman emphasized the vital role that entrepreneurs and innovation will play in lifting the United States out of economic turmoil. In the article he kindly points to NFTE as an example of a program that will help make the difference. Due to the support of people like Tom, NFTE and organizations like us are seeing more support in the public debate about education for the kind of work we do.
The amount of money allocated within the stimulus package for the "Race to the Top Fund" reflects a historic level of federal investment in education that goes beyond anything ever done in the history of our nation. Further, this marked a profound change in the role of the federal government in education and literally saved thousands of teachers from losing their jobs.
These recent acts by the federal government are changing the balance of our education system. Historically, local funding has been much more significant in education than federal funding meaning the debate around standards stayed local too. The Race to the Top funds, and the President's proposed 6% increase for federal education funding in the coming fiscal year, demonstrate both the President's commitment and the influence that Arne Duncan wields on Capitol Hill and a remarkable shift towards making the standards debate a national one. A key challenge we will face is how to leverage federal funding for programs like NFTE that work very well on a local level and execute them effectively on a larger scale.
One of my firmest beliefs is that we as a country need to invest in our children's futures and put education clearly back into the nation's focus. Education plays an indispensible role in driving the economy today and in identifying and empowering the business leaders, entrepreneurs and visionaries of tomorrow.