Education will propel US to Sputnik moment

Democrats believe investments in transportation, infrastructure, energy and education are the key to a sustainable high-growth economy. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke supported this position in recent testimony to the House Budget Committee, saying that “wise investments in education, including community colleges and on-the-job training, are essential to lowering unemployment.”

Republicans, in stark contrast, have proposed unprecedented cuts to education spending in recent resolutions. Not only are Republicans ignoring what the Federal Reserve is telling us, they are ignoring what recent scores on international competitiveness demonstrate: Investments in education are the key to our economic competitiveness.

The U.S., however, is increasingly losing its competitive edge when it comes to preparing our K-16 students in critical subjects like science, technology, engineering and math. In these subjects, our students consistently rank near the bottom in educational achievement among the world’s 30 richest nations, according to the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores.

We are being out-competed because we are being out-invested, exacerbating the mismatch in our country between the skills needed for high-growth job sectors and our students’ skill sets.

When we unpack PISA scores, it becomes clear that inequity in our school system is driving us down. The scores highlight how equity/inequity in education correlates directly with global competitiveness (or lack thereof). In reading, for example, the U.S. average score of 500 lags well behind global leaders. The reason: economic inequality. U.S. schools with smaller amounts of student poverty scored as high as 551, which trumped scores from high-ranking South Korea and Singapore and put us five points behind No. 1-ranking Shanghai. As poverty increases in our schools, however, our scores steadily decrease.

These results on competitiveness should guide our policymaking. We must make every school as good as the schools in our wealthiest communities.

To do this successfully, we must invest wisely. We cannot just pour more money into systems that are not getting the job done. We have to retool the systems so that they will be effective. That is exactly why the Department of Education recently launched the Equity and Excellence Commission. This nonpartisan commission, my brainchild in partnership with Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), is a crucial piece of the puzzle if we are really going to have our “Sputnik moment” in public education. This is our opportunity to address the broken system of education finance and develop a plan for comprehensive school finance reform that is focused on high achievement for all students. It is also an effort that is crucial to the future of working Americans.

Two things make this commission special. First, it will not be housed in Washington and function behind closed doors. The commission will be active throughout our communities, conducting field hearings, town halls and focus groups in each region of the country to give students, parents, teachers, administrators, community groups, nonprofits and small- and large-business leaders the opportunity to engage in the process. In addition, the Department of Education’s Office of Community Outreach will hold a dozen focus groups and community meetings nationwide in order to expand the commission’s reach. For education reform, this will be an important, albeit rare, opportunity for the grass-tops leaders to listen to the grassroots, where the true expertise resides.

Second, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has appointed a remarkable panel of commissioners to perform this work. The panel includes stakeholders from across the political spectrum with the experience, expertise and gravitas to get the job done. For the first time, the commission will bring to the table every side of the fractious debate, with a mandate to find practical and pragmatic solutions for education finance.

We have known for years that equal opportunity is a fallacy in our public schools. With schools primarily financed by local property tax dollars, there is nothing fair about the quality of schools for our working and middle-class families. Our children should have an equal opportunity to achieve prosperity. Closing our achievement gap, however, is not just about those at the bottom — it is about making sure that every working neighborhood has a world-class school. I hope we will seize the opportunity to make this a true Sputnik moment for each of our children.

This is the key to building a strong and sustainable American workforce and an industry that will keep us internationally competitive. If we do not invest in our children, who are clearly the workforce of our tomorrow, we lose out. The costs incurred by Republican cuts must be counted. This no-jobs agenda is quickly leading to a no-jobs future.

Honda, a former teacher, principal and school-board member, serves on the House Appropriations and Budget committees and is Democratic senior whip.