Checker’s piece on the recent “Sputnik moment” for American education sent my mind reeling and my heart racing. According to the recent PISA findings, the U.S. is running in place educationally as other countries (e.g., China) accelerate improvements to their education systems. The United States faces becoming a second-class nation if we can’t figure out how to significantly lift student achievement. Having lived in Poland (one of the world’s fastest improving countries according to PISA data) for two and half years in the 1990s and being fortunate enough to travel to other parts of the world in the years since, I accept the reality that we are in a race with other countries to have the best educated and most innovative citizens in the world. The future will be dominated by the countries with the smartest people. As a parent of two young daughters, this fact both excites and scares me.

In Ohio, where I now live, lawmakers are girding themselves and their constituents for cuts of up to $8 billion out of a $50 billion state budget. As K-12 education comprises about 40 percent of that budget, it will face serious cuts in the next two years, with schools losing as much as 20 percent of the sums to which they’ve grown accustomed. Not only are we entering a new competitive global era but we’re doing so at a time of leaner rations. And not just in the Buckeye State.

This is no short-term challenge either. Education has to get dramatically better while it competes evermore fiercely for public dollars. In Ohio, for example, Medicaid spending now consumes about 26 percent of the state budget and enrollment trends look like a shuttle launch (see chart below ). In 2008, for the first time in Ohio history, there were more enrollees in Medicaid than students in K-12 public schools.

Growth in Ohio’s Medicaid Enrollment vs. K-12 Public School Student Enrollment (2001-2009)

Medicare charter

K-12 enrollment data is from the Ohio Department of Education’s website;
Medicaid enrollment data is from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation’s website.

There is also much justified concern about unfunded pension liabilities and the burden these are placing on state budgets. The PEW Center on the States documents a half trillion dollar gap between long-term liabilities and current funding levels. Ohio’s State Teachers Retirement System, for example, faces a $38.8 billion unfunded liability and the state’s four other public pension programs face similar chasms. But the challenge doesn’t stop there. By 2025, senior citizens are likely to outnumber the nation’s school age population for the first time in our history and, as James Guthrie and Arthur Peng point out in Stretching the School Dollar, “The U.S. needs to pay interest on and reduce its $13.7 trillion national debt; pay social security and fund the health-care needs of an aging population.”

Are you feeling the palpitations yet? Despite these serious challenges, I am optimistic about the future for the simple reason that a growing number of lawmakers, reformers, and innovators seems to genuinely understand that this our moment to tackle these challenges once and for all. As Sputnik showed, nothing focuses a nation’s energy like an existential threat to its future and that of its children. This is our time.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper.

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