Friday, April 23, 2010

Education: The Real Stimulus Package

The knee-jerk reaction by elected officials facing the challenge of stimulating the economy is to pump money into construction. The argument is that this will produce valuable assets such as roads, improved transportation systems, government buildings, hospitals, and other tangible investments with use values that can go on-line in two or three years. It is expected that these projects will employ construction workers and related support staff who will pay off mortgages, spend money in local stores, and provide financial stability to their families and communities. I am not criticizing this as one strategy for stabilizing our economy and local communities. However this is just that, one strategy.

Investment in education—particularly investment in teachers--should be as popular an economic stimulus strategy as construction investment. This investment also employs workers who provide financial stability to their families and broader communities. But it provides even more; it is a long-term investment in the productive and creative capacity of our nation. Whether it is providing quality pre-school education for all children, maintaining high quality public schools, insuring that we have affordable higher education, or reacting quickly to provide retraining for adult workers, education is essential for our nation’s long-term health.

Education is a long-term investment. Unlike pouring concrete to make a new six-lane highway, education is not something poured into a student’s head to be used immediately. It takes time.

Unfortunately, the mind-set of elected officials is how to show results before the next election cycle. Something that takes 18 or more years to show productive results is a very unattractive option to many politicians.

Projections are that local and state budget crises will result in the lay off of 17,000 public school teachers in Illinois, 22,000 in California, and similar numbers in other states. Where schools have not been shut down, class sizes will increase to 45 or more students in some cases—not a setting where effective elementary or high school education can take place.

We are producing an educational crisis deeper than that which jolted this country in the late 1950s, when we were shocked by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik and this country’s lag in science and math education. We need to stop the bleed in education funding and dramatically enhance educational funding as we did 50 years ago.

In recent months we have been pumping money into Wall Street firms, banks, automobile companies, where the “Best and the Brightest” leaders led us to a colossal crisis. Perhaps it has been more greed than lack of intelligence that has led us into this crisis, but it is time to diversify our investment and pay attention to millions of children in our schools.

One politician who has the benefit of a longer-term time line agrees. Last week at Erie Neighborhood House’s annual fund raising dinner, Mayor Richard M. Daley – the twenty-year plus executive of the third largest city in the U.S.—made an emotional case for substantial additional investment into public education as the nation’s number one priority. Through much of CURL’s work with community partners it has been clear that education is central to addressing equal opportunity, community development, reduced crime, and stable employment. Once built, buildings do not create new opportunities, once educated, youth and young adults continue contributing to a healthy and creative society.

Phil Nyden
Director and Professor of Sociology