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I don't think anyone has ever even tried to make the argument that education and jobs are not in any way linked. But the economic argument for education is not well understood even by those -- politicians especially -- who are most apt to make the connection. So before we demand that political and civic leaders at all levels turn around our troubled economy by increasing investment in public education, we need to get the framing right. Big Ideas to Get America Working

You Can't Blame The Bad Economy On Education

A truly specious argument about education and its relationship to the economy is that economic failures are "caused" by inadequate public schools. Both conservatives and "liberals" are often guilty of making this charge.

The tendency to do this goes way back, as the late Gerald Bracey explained:

In 1983, then secretary of education, Terrel Bell, put forth "A Nation At Risk." It said we had sort of lost our way in education. Finding "a rising tide of mediocrity" in the U. S., it painted Germany, South Korea and, especially, Japan, as countries that were leaving us in the economic dust. "A Nation At Risk" and media stories portrayed Japan as an economic colossus astride the globe. The reason? Its students scored high on tests. High test scores equals terrific economy. But around 1990, Japan's bubble burst and its economy sank into the Pacific . . . A few years after "A Nation At Risk" scared people, the United States began the longest sustained economic expansion in its history.

So the correlation of economic output to education quality wasn't hard-and-fast then, and it's not now. Again Bracey reminded us one more time before his passing, "Looking at tests, high-scoring Iceland is an economic basket case. High-scoring France is on strike. And even higher-scoring Japan in 2007 was in recession once again. Japan's students still ace tests."

You Can Blame Education Cuts For The Bad Economy

But conversely, cutting education is a sure-fire way to hurt the economy. According to a economic study conducted by the National Education Association, "K-12 Education In The U.S. Economy" (pdf), "cutting state support for public primary and secondary education imposes economic development costs that are very often greater than those that come from raising additional revenue." For instance:

  • Cutting statewide public K-12 expenditure by $1 per $1,000 state’s personal income: (1) reduces the state’s personal income by about 0.3 percent in short run and 3.2 percent in long run, (2) reduces the state’s manufacturing investment in the long run by 0.9 percent and manufacturing employment by 0.4 percent.
  • Cutting statewide public K-12 education per student by $1 reduces small business starts by 0.4 percent in the long run.
  • Cutting statewide public K-12 expenditure by one percentage point of the state’s personal income reduces the state’s employment by 0.7 percent in the short run and 1.4 percent in the long run.
  • A 10 percent reduction in various standardized test scores yields between a 2 percent and a 10 percent reduction in aggregate home values in the long run.
  • A 10 percent reduction in school expenditures could yield a to 2 percent decrease in post-school annual earnings in the long run.
  • A 10 percent increase in the student–teacher ratio leads to a 1 to 2 percent decrease in high school graduation rates and to a decrease in standardized test scores.

In post-secondary education as well, keeping investment in local community colleges is likely to produce better economic output in the long run. According to a fact sheet available at the website of the American Association of Community Colleges (pdf), state and local governments reap a 16 percent return on every dollar they invest in community colleges due to the increased earnings of community college graduates.

Community colleges are key to many of the jobs that our communities need to stay viable. From the same AACC fact sheet:

  • Close to 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers, and EMTs are credentialed at community colleges.
  • 20-40 percent of the nation’s teachers began their education at community colleges.
  • 44 percent of students who receive baccalaureates or master’s degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields attended a community college at some point in their careers.
  • 52 percent of new nurses and the majority of other new healthcare workers are educated at community colleges.

Public Education Is An Engine For Economic Equality

Cutting spending on public education not only hurts the economy, it especially hurts those at the bottom rungs of the economy the most. That's because education is what opens up opportunities for those on the bottom rungs to learn their way up into higher earning jobs. Turning to another recent NEA study,The Effects of State Public K-12 Education Expenditures On Income Distribution (pdf), spending on public education tends to reduce income inequality, and it tends to do so mostly by raising up those who are at the lowest level of the ladder:

1. Spending on public education tends to decrease income inequality. This is even true when there are "adjustments made for other factors affecting income inequality."
2. Spending on public education decreases income inequality mostly by "contributing more to lower incomes than to higher incomes."
3. Public education expenditures also contribute to reductions in poverty rates. This is, of course, consistent with the finding that "increased public education expenditures decrease income inequality by increasing lower incomes."
4. "Greater income equality, increased lower incomes, and reduced poverty rates all lead to other non-economic social benefits, such as reduced crime rates and improvements in the quality of life." More specifically, "states with greater expenditures on public education seemed to have fewer incidences of property crime."

Spending More On Public Education Can Improve Education

Even the NEA, in one of the above reports, grants that "increased funding alone" does not always raise economic output. Nor does it necessarily guarantee an improvement in the quality of K-12 public education. But from a popular perspective, spending more on public education is not a hard argument to sell to the people.

People like their local schools. Every year, the academic society Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup ask the populace if they like their local schools, and every year -- the most recent publicized just today in USA Today -- nearly 80 percent say yes. Furthermore, these people also tend to trust teachers. They think teachers should make more money. And they resoundingly agree (65 percent) that public schools should get more money.

So let's not pretend that the popular will to steer more tax dollars to public education doesn't exist. Instead, what's behind school cuts and resistance to increased funding are conservatives, of course, who have vowed to cut everything (except the military and subsidies for big business), and "experts," such as Bill Gates who don’t think public schools are a good investment.

A big complaint of Gates and his crowd is that "the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat." But as Richard Rothstein explains, Gates gets it wrong on both accounts. First, although K-12 per pupil spending has about doubled over the last four decades, "less than half of this new money has gone to regular education," and "the biggest single recipient of new money has been special education for children with disabilities," which climbed from less than 4 percent of all K-12 spending to consume 21 percent.

Furthermore, Gates' contention that "we've got nothing to show for it" isn't true either. Again, Rothstein corrects: On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), "American students have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged."

The fact is, the trail of evidence of a link of increased education outlays to improved education results is actually pretty lengthy and significant. As school finance expert Bruce Baker recounts time after time in his blog, there are "a multitude of rigorous empirical studies" that show that increased funding -- and more equitable distribution of funding -- produce real improvements in state test scores, post-secondary education enrollment, and narrowing of the achievement gap.

Education Is More Than A Jobs Program

As Chinese educator, now living in America, Yong Zhao points out, the USA continues to be the most economically competitive country in the world. We continue to be the most innovative, as measured by patents issued. And we're still, arguably, the most open and democratic. No other country comes close to the U.S. when it comes to exports of intellectual property and knowledge as evidenced by patents, royalties, copyrights, and license fees. The U.S. has by far the most Nobel Laureates. If the U.S. educational system is so bad, why are other countries (like China) trying to emulate us?

Where we've gone wrong is that many of our communities are being left out of the opportunity afforded by universal public education. So the goal is not to retreat. It is to expand. However, education is not a "jobs program." It's actually much more important than that.

Even though there's ample evidence that funding public education increases the job prospects of all Americans in the short term and preserves the viability of the American economy much further into the future, the greater goal cannot be measured in economic terms alone. Children and youth need to be educated in how to be self reliant and in how to know what to do when they don't know the answers to questions and problems. That's a bigger goal than "jobs."

But de-funding our public schools and narrowing education achievement to scores on standardized tests is taking us in a direction that will in fact leave our country out of the global economy.

It's not too late to course-correct. The federal government must insist that states and cities invest in creating the finest public education in the world, from universal preschool, to modernized public schools, to advanced training and affordable college. When cash-strapped states and municipalities can't sustain investment in schools, revenue sharing from federal sources should continue to make up funding shortages. And the federal government must continue its traditional role -- established by Brown vs. Board of Education and the establishment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- of intervening when states flagrantly impose inequitable and undemocratic distribution of funds for public education .

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