Americans pride ourselves in our education system and we have a lot to be proud of. But, do we really value education when many conservatives bash teachers and professors and view education in terms of the "bottom line"? Or when many retirees who are far from poor do not want to pay taxes for schools since their kids no longer are in school?
Our other problem is that many politicians do not really see education as a priority that the taxpayers ought to pay for. After all, the U.S. House (and the N.H. House) has recently cut funding for public services and while giving tax breaks to the rich. They want to abolish the inheritance tax on the rich and sell this by calling it a "death tax". Would the idea "sell" if we called it "The Paris and Conrad Hilton III Spoiled Brat Trust Fund Tax"?
They also want to give billions to what Eisenhower called "the military industrial complex". Everyone is for better national security but having a poorly-educated population hardly makes us "secure."
There are countries that do things better than we do with education and with impressive results. In Germany, higher education is now free. In Denmark, students get free tuition as well as a government stipend to live on. Our students not only go into debt but often have to work full-time. Perhaps that is why many European students know so much about what is happening in the larger world: they have the time to travel abroad.
Germany also has an education system that fits country's needs. Every German student receives a basic, general eight grade education. Then, based on tests and the student's interests, those college bound are sent to one of two types of public high schools. One is the gymnasium where you go if you are humanities-oriented. If you are more science and math oriented, you attend a Realschul.
If you are going into a skilled trade, you go to still another type of high school that combines general studies with hands-on training. By your last year, you are often working in a PAID apprenticeship. The German government, companies, and the unions all cooperate in these programs. In the U.S.A, there are very few paid internships for students.
While public education has made this country great, many want us to go backwards. The conservative Christians want the taxpayers to subsidize their private schools where they teach Creation "science", revised history, and "abstinence only" sex education. But, they are not satisfied; they want it in public schools too.
Others want to remodel education along neo-liberal lines. They want vouchers for private schools. They see the failures in our education system as an argument for privatization.
Actually, this model has been tried. The first real experiment in neo-liberal economic policies proposed by Milton Friedman was in Chile. But these policies could only be imposed after a U.S.-backed military coup that installed a brutal dictatorship where no one could oppose them. A group of economists trained by Friedman called the "Chicago Boys" were hired to supervise it.
Funding for public services were drastically cut, unions were suppressed, and public enterprises were sold off to private investors. Followers of Dr. Friedman like to talk of a "Chilean Miracle". While it did make some Chileans rich, it was very hard the working classes. The "miracle" fell apart and it was the economic problems it caused that led to a concerted effort to remove dictatorship.
In education, the neo-liberals created an system that conservatives here would approve of. Deep cuts were made to higher education and "subversive" professors were fired. Chile had some of the best universities in South America but the government promoted private "universities" which were for-profit and were of dubious quality. And, as in America, funding of public schools was tied to a community's tax base with poorer areas getting poorer schools. Since then, Chilean students have had to pay higher and higher tuition and take out loans. Sound familiar?
After democracy was restored, Chilean students set about to change it. A series of strikes over the last several years by both high school and college students (supported by parents and educators) finally produced results. Recently, Chile has decided to provide free education at public universities and cut the public funding of private schools and "universities".
It baffles that the wealthiest country in the world cannot follow the example of other democracies.
(Scott Cracraft is an American citizen, taxpayer, veteran, and resident of Gilford.)
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