The following article was originally published in the Spring 1996 issue of Working People.
If thereís one word that can best summarize the key to our nationís most pressing problems, itís education. In 1983, "A Nation at Risk," a national report on the condition of secondary education, shocked the nation with its conclusions:
"The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people...If an un-friendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves."
Unfortunately, in the years since, in spite of a lot of rhetoric from our political and educational leaders, little has changed. In March of this year, amid a lot of hoopla, the nationís governors and top business leaders met for two days in what was billed as the Second National Education Summit. At the time of the meeting most people had long forgotten the failed expectations of the previous summit held in 1989.
At the conclusion of the latest summit, held in Palisades, New York, the governors pledged to set more rigorous standards for their stateís students within two years. But there is no reason to believe that the governorsí pledge will have more impact now than it did after the 1989 summit. There was, in fact, clear disagreement among the governors as to how standards might be set and measured. Some of the governors, such as George Allen (R-Virginia), went to great lengths to exclude any role for the federal government and even the notion that there should be some form of national standards or goals.
While it is clear that many governors want to maintain absolute autonomy over their states programs and the standards and tests that are applied, clearly their approach has already failed miserably. While the federal government has managed to apply some influence upon our nationís schools, the responsibility for and the ultimate failure of our schools lies with the state and local governments that manage their programs.
Because it has become fashionable to bash the federal government and trumpet states rights, too many Americans forget that we are, after all, supposed to be a "united states." The Articles of Confederation failed miserably, which is why we adopted a strong federal constitution in 1789. After all, our children donít compete for jobs in an exclusively state economy. They must enter a national job market competing economically on a global scale.
The problem of education is a war that the United States must fight and win. To be shackled by the mantle of states rights only hobbles our efforts at winning that war. We need tough national standards and tests, created with the cooperative participation of the states and the leaders of our higher education and business communities. Until we recognize that only a massive commitment on a national scale is sufficient, we will continue to lose ground economically to other nations around the world who recognize education as a key to their economic future.