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Commentary: National security priority? Education

by on January 23, 2014 10:30 AM

They are burning the midnight kilowatts in the West Wing. And they’ll probably be cutting and pasting until President Obama climbs into his limo next Tuesday night and drives 16 blocks to the gleaming-white, floodlit Capitol.

The president’s policy and message massagers are frantically making sure all the president’s must-keep themes are still in his 2014 State of the Union text. We can only hope they haven’t overlooked — yet again! — one bold national security priority that could become the capstone of Barack Obama’s presidential legacy.

Truth is, they’ve always understood the urgency. They even had the benefit of hearing an unscripted question that said it all, back in 2010, at a campaign town meeting at George Washington University.

“Mr. President, you have pointed out that U.S. students have fallen from the top 20 nations in math and science and test scores — and jobs and contracts are going overseas,” said Francesca Yabraian, an Agriculture Department employee. “You’ve called education a national priority. But do you think it is time to label education funding a national security priority?”

Exactly! Today, education must be declared a national security priority.

Obama instantly got it and ran with it. “I think it’s a national security priority,” he said. “Look, there has never been a nation on earth that lost its economic edge and maintained its military edge. And the reason we have the most effective military on earth, in the history of the world, is first and foremost because we have unbelievable men and women in uniform who make sacrifices on our behalf every single day.

“But the second reason is that we’ve had the biggest economy in the world that can support this incredible armed forces that we have. And if we start falling behind economically, we will start falling behind from a national security perspective — there’s no doubt about it. And the single most important determinant of how we do economically is going to be the skills of our workforce. And you’re exactly right.

“We used to be at the top of the heap when it came to math and science education; we are now 21st and 25th respectively in science and math. ... Other countries are making huge investments. China is doubling, tripling, quadrupling the number of college graduates it is generating. ... And yet, here we are, losing that first-place position. That is unacceptable.”

Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have undertaken a number of programs aimed at reversing America’s slide in education results. Still, government alone cannot fix what is wrong — but we can.

Four years ago, Obama told educators in a White House speech what South Korea’s president had told him was his biggest education problem. “He told me his biggest challenge in education wasn’t budget holes, it wasn’t crumbling schools — it was that the parents were too demanding. He’s had to import thousands of foreign teachers because parents insisted on English language training in elementary school. The mayor of Shanghai, China ... told me ... teaching is revered (there) and the pay scales are comparable to professions like doctors.”

Duncan noted in a recent speech that while many U.S. teachers come from the bottom third of college graduates, South Korean teachers are selected from the top 5 percent of high school students; they get six months’ training after being hired, are well paid and get bonuses.

A generation ago, Americans were No. 1 in the world in percentages of college graduates. Now America is 12th — South Korea is first. “Both South Korean and U.S. citizens believe that the caliber of teachers matters tremendously,” Duncan said. “The difference is: They act on their belief. We don’t. We talk the talk, and they walk the walk.”

We, the people, will never be able to form a more perfect union until we rethink our cultural and fiscal education priorities. In this looming national security crisis, our politicians are not our greatest problem — we are.

It might be unstately to end a State of the Union Address with a question, but Obama would do well to conclude Tuesday’s speech by repeating what Duncan bluntly asked:

“I want to pose one simple question to you: Does a child in South Korea deserve a better education than your child? If your answer is no — that no child in America deserves any less than a world-class education — then your work is cut out for you.”



Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.
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