One of the main reasons the United States developed the world's strongest and most innovative economy is that it invested in education.
The commitment to provide free, universal public education made it possible for tens of millions, the children of farmers, sharecroppers and workers, many of who were immigrants from Ireland, Eastern and Southern Europe, China and elsewhere, to master the language and numeracy skills they needed to contribute to the growth of the nation and its democracy.
In establishing the University of Virginia and in his support for land grant colleges like the University of Wisconsin, Thomas Jefferson established a national precedent of public support for higher education that has continued until recent years.
Progressive states like Wisconsin built on these traditions by investing in vocational schools which today have developed into the Wisconsin Technical College System, a sophisticated post- secondary education and training system that provides local industry with the skilled workers and technicians it needs.
But in the last few years, the nation's thirty year romance with reducing taxes has combined with the Great Recession to undermine education funding at all levels. The nation's public schools are now approaching, in the words of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, "an education catastrophe" as state budget cuts will eliminate between 100,000 and 3000,000 teaching positions.
Last year the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was responsible for preventing 342,000 teacher layoffs, 5.5% of the country's total K-12 teaching jobs.
But this year with no additional stimulus dollars massive layoffs are expected. 90% of the nation's school districts plan to layoff teachers in the fall, up from 66% last year.
Districts in California have given pink slips to 22,000 teachers. Illinois authorities are predicting 17,000 and New York is projecting another 15,000 position will have to be eliminated to balance the budget. Across Wisconsin from Milwaukee to the Fox Valley, from Madison to Stevens Point and Menasha, teaching positions are being cut. A record 13% of the nation's school districts are considering a four day school week.
Deficit hawks will argue that we have to live within our means; that we just can't afford to keep all of these teachers. They disingenuously assert that if we spend more federal money on teaching our children we have to cut other federal spending to prevent the deficit from growing even larger. They are proposing cuts in education in the name of the protecting our children and grandchildren from having to pay the nation's growing debts.
This is nonsense. 66% of the federal budget is non-discretionary spending like Social Security, Medicare and interest on the debt. It cannot legally be cut.
Half of the remaining third is national defense spending which is for all practical purposes non- discretionary when the nation is fighting two wars. That leaves only 17% of the federal budget that can be cut. And that 17% includes education, job training, veterans benefits, food stamps, unemployment benefits, justice, environment, and research and development. What exactly do they propose we cut to pay for education? Education? Job Training? Veterans benefits?
A nation that can't afford to educate its citizens is a nation that will not prosper.
Education is an investment in the future of the nation, its economy and its people. Most economists agree that it is necessary to go into debt to jump start the economy and or to make investments in education, science, research and development and infrastructure; investments that are the basis for increased economic growth and prosperity. If we fail to make these strategic investments, economic decline is assured.
Cuts on the scale being projected also threaten the nation's economy recovery. While the economy has begun to grow, unemployment and underemployment continue to hold back growth. The federal stimulus provided a temporary increase in demand that prevented the severe recession from becoming a depression. But most of that money has now been spent. Eliminating 300,000 teachers will lead to a significant reduction in demand that could undermine the weak recovery causing a double dip recession.
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin has proposed a $23 billion school bailout bill that will help schools across the nation avoid the catastrophic layoffs that are planned. Congress should pass this bill!
A year and half ago Congress bailed out CitiGroup, Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street banks. The deficit hawks didn't demand cuts in federal spending to provide Wall Street with hundreds of billions of dollars.
Is it more important for us to keep these private investment firms alive than it is to educate our young people? Are we more more committed to investing in Wall Street speculation than in the real economy and people that produce goods and services?
Congress needs to pass Senator Harkin's emergency education funding bill now. Otherwise, we will get exactly the kind of nation we won't pay for.