Thomas Jefferson noted that one of the keys to a healthy democracy is an educated electorate. After World War II, the Truman Commission recommended the creation of community colleges to help develop a well-informed citizenry who could assure the strength of the republic. More than a dozen presidential debates have been held already, with countless more on the congressional and state levels. Yet education as a key issue has been conspicuously absent from the debate.
In a Facebook poll after the recent New Hampshire presidential debate, respondents overwhelmingly said they wanted more debate on the economy. More discussion on education came in far behind healthcare, Iraq and other topics. It seems no one is making the connection between good decision-making, good jobs and a learned populace.
There are those who say that education in the United States is a local issue and should remain so. Education, by and large, has been relegated to a local issue because elementary and high school education has been locally funded. Community colleges also receive funding through local district tax levies. States and the federal government do provide some financial support for schools. However, the state and federal government often dictate unfunded or poorly funded mandates—No Child Left Behind on the national level, and veterans’ education on the Illinois state level, for example—that educational institutions must provide. No one would disagree with the concepts of trying to improve educational outcomes through assessment or supporting education for veterans. But without funding, these mandates hurt schools.
A study completed by the Illinois Board of Higher Education noted that between 2002 and 2006, state schools have had to come up with about $29.7 million to cover the shortfall between what Illinois veterans were promised and what the state delivered. According to a Journal Star report, in 2006, Illinois State University made up a shortfall of more than $700,000 to cover Illinois Veterans Grant expenses. Unpaid, but state-promised, veterans’ aid at ICC topped a quarter of a million dollars in 2006 and is expected to hit $330,000 this year. Presidential candidates and others have been fast to discuss how America needs to continue to support our troops, and some even mention the problems veterans run into when they return, but little mention is ever made of providing the kind of support for their education that America has promised.
At the same time, taxpayer monies are being accessed more and more by for-profit institutions of higher education. More than 50 percent of students who attend private, for-profit, four-year institutions and more than 60 percent who attend private, for-profit, two-year institutions (which are more expensive than public schools) receive federal financial aid, compared to just 30 percent at their public counterparts. In other words, the federal government is willing to provide a larger percentage of students attending for-profit institutions with aid than those students who go to taxpayer-supported or non-profit schools. In essence, government educational dollars are supporting private enterprise and individual profits, and yet, the federal government has chosen not to increase supports in Pell grants because of the expense. And by the way, the graduation rates at institutions that make a profit from student attendance are not better than those at non-profit or public institutions.
The lack of public focus on education is evident in our schools and economy. In a study by the National Science Foundation, the United States was 25th in the world in the number of engineers it produces per one million people in the population. South Korea was first, and countries like Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan and Iceland were ahead of us. Candidates talk about building an economy through innovation, but we must ask the question: Are we developing the talent? The Illinois Board of Higher Education notes that it’s taking longer for students to graduate from four-year colleges, and students are coming to college less and less prepared. In the academic year 2005 to 2006, a total of 121,000, or 11 percent, of all Illinois college and university students were enrolled in at least one remedial class. That number is expected to increase.
During election years, candidates have an opportunity and a responsibility to elevate issues that will affect the future of their constituents. Sadly, few have made the connection between a well-educated citizenry, the economy and the strength of the nation. IBI