In a national poll taken earlier this year, 42 percent of those surveyed said the federal government should make education funding its top priority, ahead of Social Security and even Medicare.
Among those who believe education funding is most important, 80 percent support national certification for teachers and 78 percent support spending at least $3 billion to repair our nation's crumbling schools. Clearly, voters know what many politicians are only just discovering: Well-prepared teachers teaching in well equipped schools will help ensure our student's academic success -- voters also understand that accountability, linking dollars to results, is the key to that success.
Congress is currently re-authorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), legislation that addresses many of our nation's K-12 education priorities.
Unfortunately, that process has been undermined by those who believe that national education policy is simply a choice between increased spending or local control. Both sides see only part of the problem. Years of research and decades of experience have taught us that the path to student success lies in having the best prepared teachers providing students with a challenging curriculum in environments that are conducive to learning.
While throwing good money at bad schools is no solution to improving public education; neither is increasing local control if school districts do not take steps or cannot afford to make the improvements necessary to raise student achievement. Instead of engaging in this stagnant debate, policymakers should develop cooperative strategies where the strengths of the public and private sector can be leveraged to raise student achievement.
Although it is true that parents, teachers, and local officials know what is best for the children in their communities, many school districts simply do not have the tax base to make desperately needed changes such as repairing school buildings, raising teacher pay, and providing a full range of extra-curricular opportunities for students. The federal government should help. But in exchange for that assistance, school districts should be required to outline specific steps they intend to take explaining how they intend to utilize the funds with the goal of raising student achievement -- in short, accountability.
Across the nation, parents are asking that their schools be held accountable. In a national survey taken in 1999, more than two-thirds of parents with children in public school favored instituting performance targets for principals and teachers, a similar number favored taking swift action to reform underperforming schools.
In response to these demands, many states have developed and implemented a variety of accountability measures. Forty-eight states now have standardized tests and 25 of those states are using tests to determine if schools are successful in educating their students.
Working as a partner, the federal government must continue to help school districts that are working to improve student performance and rewarding those that succeed. For example, if a school district takes specific steps to ensure that all children are taught by fully qualified teachers rather than those with emergency certification or inadequate credentials, then that school district should be rewarded with federal funds to repair or renovate schools, or additional funds to expand after school programs, or the resources to raise teacher pay.
The problems in our public education system reverberate across our society. Ninety-percent of our prison population are high school drop-outs and 92 percent are functionally illiterate, yet we know that if we doubled average annual per pupil expenditures nationwide we would still be spending less than half of what it costs to keep a prisoner locked up for one year.
The cost to our society of poor public education extends far beyond our criminal justice system. Inadequate preparation means our children will enter the workforce without the skills necessary to succeed. This in turn will create instability in the labor market as businesses locate in areas where their potential employees are better prepared.
If our community and our nation are to compete and win in the new marketplace -- driven by digitalization, deregulation, diversity and globalization -- then we must develop a workforce that is more highly skilled and computer literate than ever before. No investment is more important to our future prosperity and economic security than improving education and developing the skills of our workforce.
Our public education problems are national, and they demand a national response. A national response does not mean that the federal government should become America's school board, but it does mean that where it can, using strict standards, the federal government should partner with the states and localities to encourage and reward success.