Opinion: Depression taught us that education is key to recovery

January 19, 2009

Imagine this situation: The economy is facing a crisis with no recent parallel. Many Americans have lost jobs and homes. Yet even as the president takes dramatic measures to jump-start the economy, he lays the groundwork for recovery with measures to improve education and widen college opportunities, especially for low-income and minority youngsters.

The year is not 2009, but 1938. The Great Depression has laid bare a profound divide in education, along lines of income and race. The Roosevelt administration, recognizing that recovery will depend upon an educated population, promotes teacher training, school construction, teaching of literacy and Latin — and affordable college education. Harry Hopkins, architect of the New Deal, explains that “anyone who has capacities should be in college and should get a higher education and that he is going to get it irrespective of his economic status.”

Seventy years later, as an American president again confronts financial catastrophe, he would do well to note this lesson of the Roosevelt years. With resources drained by economic crisis and war, one might imagine we don’t have the luxury of making education a high priority right now. In fact, now is exactly the time.

Economic recovery depends on our ability to compete internationally, and we have been slipping because our children are not prepared. In our major cities, barely half of students earn high school diplomas. Among those who enroll, nearly half must take remedial courses. Low-income children are one-sixth as likely as affluent children to graduate from college. Such facts amount to an economic brake and a betrayal of our beliefs in fairness and opportunity.

To reverse these trends, Barack Obama and his results-driven choice for education secretary, Arne Duncan, must take urgent steps to improve schools, especially in low-income communities.

The most crucial is to embed education as a core element of the economic recovery plan. We must recognize that teachers are important workers in building our strength. The recovery plan must support states and communities in protecting teachers from a round of layoffs that would hurt kids and damage teacher recruitment for years to come.

Second, Obama and Duncan will have to fight hard to expand innovation in education, including the scale-up of proven ideas. Such creative thinking builds on what’s working best today and begins to correct a profound lack of R&D in education. Today, education puts less than 0.3 percent of total spending into such efforts, where medicine and engineering invest 5 percent to 15 percent.

Key to an innovation agenda is Obama’s commitment to double spending for public charter schools. Strong charter schools are generating many of the most promising ideas for educational change. Investing in them will spur innovation while giving parents better options.

Also controversial, and crucial, is Obama’s commitment to open creative paths to recruiting, training and rewarding excellent teachers — including performance-based pay. Current federal efforts to improve the nation’s teaching force cost more than $3 billion annually but generate lackluster results.

Opponents of this agenda will fight to defend entrenched interests, arguing that we can’t afford to do this work. The truth, however, is just the reverse: We can’t afford not to do it. Our national recovery, our long-term economic interests and our national character depend on it.

Ted Mitchell is the chief executive of the San Francisco-based philanthropy NewSchools Venture Fund and the president of the California Board of Education. Jonathan Schorr is a partner at NewSchools. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.