04/27/2012 12:11 pm ET Updated Jun 27, 2012

Why We Can't Afford Our Nation's Public Education Debt

This week, Rick Santorum shared his regret for calling President Obama a snob for saying that all young people should go to college. Santorum explained on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight that when he made this accusation about Obama back in February -- and repeatedly thereafter -- he believed he was doing so in response to factual information regarding the president's remarks on education. In addition to accusing the president of intellectual elitism, he asserted then that Obama "wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his."

I can't help but hear the subtle linguistic allusions here to the Genesis Creation story -- "God made man in his own image" -- a quick allusion that is just enough to make the Religious Right move from snobbery to accusations of the president playing God, and just enough to make some people cringe at the mere suggestion that they could perhaps be remade into a black man's image. But that is more like an aside.

What I do find particularly stunning is that, in a moment of economic crisis, where we need people well prepared to enter the workforce and help create sustainable economic renewal, that wanting people to have the opportunity to obtain post-secondary education would be a point of criticism. Ultimately, what would really be wrong with President Obama's imagining an America where everyone has access to the same high quality educational opportunities that he has had or his daughters will have? Where the 1% really embraces the ideal of a country (a public school system, a health care system) that works well for all?

After all, we already have plenty of politicians who fail daily to connect the votes they cast to the realities of the American people. Right now, in the House, Democrats and Republicans are debating at a high volume over the issue of Stafford Loan interest rates. While both sides agree now on keeping interest rates at 3.4% rather than raising them to 6.8% in July, they disagree on how to pay for it. While Democrats want the money to come from taxes on high earners or oil companies, Republicans want to offset costs by taking money from a program within the health care law that supports some women's health programs.

It is clear: Politicians are playing politics with education. And it's a game we cannot afford to lose.

Historically, the United States has been an exceptional supporter of a strong public educational system. Initially, the country was a leader in universal primary education. The "high school movement" then made the United States the first nation to embrace widespread secondary education. After World War II, the G.I. Bill and a huge expansion of public universities helped large numbers of Americans -- including a number of my relatives -- earn college degrees. As President Obama reminded the National Governors Association in February, America's future economic prosperity is inextricably linked to a well-educated populace. Obama asserted, "We all want Americans to get those jobs of the future. We need to make sure they get the education they need." An educated citizenry is at the core of a strong economy and a healthy democracy.

Yet, if we as a nation are truly serious about addressing our economic and other problems by cultivating an educated American people, then we can't begin and end our conversation with the cost of higher education. We have to turn our attention to PreK-12 education in the United States.

I serve on a board of trustees of a charter school in Trenton, New Jersey. Like charter schools across the country, our school's main measure of student success -- and the assessment of whether or not the school itself is a successful charter school -- is the students' performance on state tests. When we discuss the performance of our students at our monthly meetings, the discussion is always framed in terms of achievement. And how is that achievement measured? By the difference in scoring on a program called Success Maker, a helpful software program that prepares students for their district and state assessments at year-end. Each child's learning is monitored and measured. The hope is that such monitoring will lead towards more directed instruction that then will result in improved student performance on NJ ASK (New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge). Ultimately, student scores on NJ ASK determine the school's ability to maintain its charter.

This focus on narrowing the achievement gap for students is a product of No Child Left Behind. This 2001 legislation was intended to address "achievement gaps," disparities between groups of students. The phrase "achievement gap" is most often used to describe the troubling differences between African-American and Latino students and their white peers, or the difference between the performance of a student from a low-income family and one from a family with more economic means. A disproportionate number of lower income students and students of color across the country are educated in the lowest performing schools in the country. This gap shows itself in standardized test scores, grades, college completion rates, and drop out rates, among other measures of success.

But what if we rethink the issue of an achievement gap as not so much an identification of what a child needs to learn in order to succeed? What if, instead, we think of those gaps as national debts?

According to education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, educators should rethink "the notion of the achievement gap and to begin to think about the incredible debt that we as a nation have accumulated. So rather than focusing on telling people to catch up, we have to think about how we, all of us, will begin to pay down this mountain of debt that we have amassed at the expense of entire groups of people."

For every underfunded public school district, every ineffective reform and every overcrowded classroom, the nation incurs debt. When children of the less affluent in this country are denied a quality education -- a sound foundation in math, the sciences, literacy, languages, the arts and music -- thereby being effectively closed off from or limited in their solid post-secondary educational options, the nation incurs debt. The poor and people of color disproportionately suffer from this debt. These debts are felt in rural impoverished areas and in urban areas like Trenton, New Jersey, where there are 13,000 students, but 1,400 dropped out of the class of 2010; where students living in poverty are 3 times as likely to drop out when compared to peers in affluent neighborhoods; and, where nearly 40% of residents make between $10,000 and $25,000 a year. The impact of these debts is multi-generational and cyclical.

This debt makes public school unaffordable for the populace it is supposed to serve. The interest is too high for the nation to ignore.