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Code Red - The Largest Threat to National Security

by Kathy Ridge

February 27,2011

When it comes to guarding against potential terrorist threats, Americans pay whatever it costs to keep our country safe. We begrudgingly accept billions in spending to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We understand paying $65 million each year to provide technical skills training to Afghan youths. We know if we don’t, they will be unemployed and more susceptible to terrorists’ recruiting. We know the difference between code yellow and code orange warnings from Homeland Security. Yet, as Thomas Friedman writes, “If another country was doing to us what we are doing to ourselves in public education, we would declare war on them.”

The Program for International Student Assessment recently released scores showing that US students fall dramatically below their peers in other developed countries. America ranks 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 25th in math. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared, “We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.” Secretary Duncan also said, “We have to see this as a wakeup call”. Really? How many such wakeup calls will it take for us to act?

In a recent report titled “Shut Out of the Military,” The Education Trust reported that one in five high school graduate recruits can’t pass the Armed Services Vocational Battery exam (ASVAB). Too many of today’s would-be soldiers don’t have the math, science, reading, and problem-solving skills essential to “outthink as well as outfight” our enemies, as the report states. Military recruits from North Carolina exemplify this pattern. Out of 13,473 applicants, 23.4 % were ineligible for service. If high school graduates are not qualified for military service, they are likely not qualified for most civilian work as well.

What more will it take for Americans to recognize that the largest threat to national security is right here on our own soil? We need to be able to innovate, solve problems, and lead the world in literacy and knowledge-based businesses; but at the same time, we are facing a third year of draconian cuts to education because of declining tax revenues from expiring federal stimulus dollars.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ leaders have planned innovative reforms, but the money isn’t there to pay for them. We know what works. Bright Beginnings, a nationally touted pre-K program that successfully prepares children to learn in kindergarten, is facing significant cuts. Dr. Peter Gorman, Superintendent for CMS, has also trumpeted a “pay for performance” plan for teachers that resounds with national education reformers. However, when sharing the first draft of the expected 2011-2012 CMS budget, Dr. Gorman indicated we might not be able to fund this initiative. If we can’t afford to pay for excellent teaching, we face a forceful downward spiral. This isn’t just about money for our schools, however – it’s about investing money for our children.

Public education is a multi-dimensional problem. The lack of a federal agenda with shared nationwide goals and standards gives us no rallying cry, no vision. We once launched initiatives that resulted in progress from which we still benefit, and accomplished them in under a decade. When we said we would go to the moon, we did it. Leaving education funding up to each state and municipality enables too much variability in quality and success. In North Carolina, superintendents and local school boards are disconnected from funding, revenue, and policy decisions. Yet they are on the ground daily making choices that could better inform those decisions. We, as citizen leaders, must show courage and political will where our elected have not: public education must be the national, state and local funding priority, period. We must commit to reduce entitlement spending, redirect funding, and find revenue to invest in our schools and students.

Charlotteans find the money when they want something badly enough. If the local host committee of the Democratic Convention can commit $42 million to replace seats in the Time Warner Cable Arena, among other enhancements, we can find the money to save Bright Beginnings and continue to improve our school system.

Winston Churchill once said, “Americans will always do the right thing, but only after they’re absolutely forced to.” This is a war we’ve tried to ignore. But the war against poverty and substandard education in the United States is the war for our national security. We can win it. But we must declare a state of national emergency. Public education is a code red.

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