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Davis, California

Monday, October 25, 2021

Column: Educational imperatives

A day or so after UC Davis students made national news protesting fee hikes last year, I was my usual media omnivore self, watching “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox. You may wonder why I still remember, but I could not believe I heard Charles Krauthammer lumping students fee hike protesters in with “entitlement” types that he claims are the nation’s problem. Seriously?

There was a flash of anger then, but I reclined to give perspective to what I had just heard. Is education to be looked at as an investment or an entitlement spending? It is clear that America is not going to trump China in its postindustrial era. The Chinese simply are unencumbered by our elaborate system of legislative or bureaucratic hurdles. They don’t have the demagoguery or marathon national debates that create fanfare for posturing and mob baiting by ideologues. They just get stuff (spending on their education, infrastructure, etc.) done!

Education is the only way left for America to stay on top or be competitive. We can’t rely on being numero uno by shipping off our troops to fight Napoleonic wars halfway across the world. It is creating exceptional institutions that will provide education and research to bridge us into the technological future. We must be able to provide our kids with a well-rounded education with ample consideration for the arts that fuel our crucial creative exports – from movies to video games. In this global economic age, we have to lead the ideas market. That is why education can’t be a flex pole for punditry gymnastics. Left or right, conservative or progressive; we can’t afford the one-uppers, zero-sum, you lose, I win games when it comes to education.

Recently, there has been a lot of debating what is or isn’t working with our educational system. On the left there has been the much-hackneyed “Waiting For Superman” movie while the right has been posturing behind the charter school superwoman Michelle Reed of Washington D.C. and the New Jersey wonder guy Gov. Christie for taking on ineffective teachers or the powerful teacher unions respectively. NBC had a commendable weeklong debate, Education Nation, which brought stakeholders to provide ideas on what could be done to deal with the conundrum. Predictably, during all the talk shopping, the blame game has taken the foreground even as we are reminded of our responsibilities to our kids and the future of this country.

New statistics are tossed at us daily indicating we are lagging behind when compared to other industrialized nations. We are 18th out of 36 industrialized nations in graduating college students. Seventy percent of our school kids can’t read at grade level in the eighth grade. We rank 20-something in reading and math skills … I can’t keep up with the stats. B-R-O-K-E-N. I think that’s about a fair description of our school system. So now we know how bad the problem is; what about some concrete and workable solutions devoid of political or ideological proclivities for once?

First, I believe cuts to education funding should not be the first line item for state governors. The relatively unfair job security enjoyed by teachers and school administrators is not as much the issue as whether they are performing and therefore deserve those benefits. I’ve seen many an ineffective teacher protected by tenure and therefore have no reason or motivation to better their skills. Trust that there are opponents of the undeniably flawed status quo who are jostling for the “who is wackier?” spot. They criticize the establishment left in the universities for indoctrinating college students. There are people like Glenn Beck who lampoon government takeover of the student loan industry. They want the private banks to use government funds and jack up our loan rates whimsically.

Per capita, the U.S. spends more on education than the countries that continue to trounce us in terms of results. That does not excuse the cuts to education or fee hikes as middle-class incomes continue to flat line. No, it does not excuse that on average states expend northward of $280,000 incarcerating one American compared to $140,000 for educating them.

Bumper sticker policies like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” are not, per se, the solution. We can go right ahead and direct all the blame at schools and teachers and absolve ourselves of personal responsibility. If there is any smidgen of hope to fix our school system, it will come when parents and students become vested in their education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says we have to educate our way to prosperity; families should see education as the ticket to a better life.

FAYIA SELLU can be reached at fmsellu@ucdavis.edu.


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