Mov­ing on to other re­forms

Un­for­tu­nately, the ed­u­ca­tion de­bate mir­rors health­care in too many ways

Modern Healthcare - - Opinions Editorials -

Look in the rearview mir­ror and you’ll see an ob­ject steadily fad­ing from sight. It’s the pro­tracted, hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing de­bate over health­care re­form.

By the time you’re read­ing this, Congress may have cast a decisive vote on re­form leg­is­la­tion. Or maybe not. Dead­lines be­ing dead­lines, this page went to press with the tim­ing of a fi­nal vote still very much in doubt. But whether the vote came over the week­end or was post­poned again, law­mak­ers will very soon need to move on.

While the leg­isla­tive ma­neu­vers may be wind­ing down, the war of words will cer­tainly con­tinue. The Novem­ber elec­tions guar­an­tee months of re­crim­i­na­tions, fin­ger-point­ing and neg­a­tive ad­ver­tis­ing—all tied to health­care.

Still, amid all the arm-twist­ing and strate­giz­ing over the re­form endgame, there were signs that at­ten­tion in our na­tion’s cap­i­tal had be­gun shift­ing to other, equally im­por­tant is­sues. Just last week, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion started talk­ing in de­tail about an­other long-de­layed re­form in­volv­ing an­other trou­bled sec­tor that touches nearly all of us: pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, specif­i­cally the re­vamp­ing and reau­tho­riza­tion of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s sig­na­ture No Child Left Be­hind law, now nearly a decade old.

The first or­der of busi­ness for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should be to change the name of that law. It’s for the same rea­son that health­care re­form leg­is­la­tion could never have been dubbed the No Pa­tient Left Be­hind bill. No mat­ter what will be done in health­care dur­ing the months and years ahead, and like­wise, no mat­ter what fixes, if any, are in store for ed­u­ca­tion, lots of peo­ple will be left be­hind.

It’s a nice sen­ti­ment and cer­tainly a laud­able goal to think oth­er­wise for our na­tion’s schools, but it’s also ul­ti­mately im­pos­si­ble given the en­trenched in­ter­ests on all sides. Any­one no­tice the health­care par­al­lels?

Ed­u­ca­tion, like health­care, needs and de­serves at­ten­tion. It’s an­other sec­tor that de­vours hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars—with sub­par out­comes in too many cases—of­ten with too lit­tle ac­count­abil­ity.

Let’s also re­mem­ber that the vi­tal­ity of the health­care in­dus­try will al­ways re­quire a highly ed­u­cated work­force—more than many other fields just be­cause of its com­plex­ity and in­creas­ing tech­no­log­i­cal de­pen­dency.

From kinder­garten all the way through the pub­lic uni­ver­sity level, the lion’s share of money for ed­u­ca­tion comes from the states, not Un­cle Sam. Given the dis­mal state of states’ fi­nances, can any in­vest­ments in re­form be funded given the flood of red ink that’s drown­ing so many ex­ist­ing pro­grams? Again, the ed­u­ca­tion de­bate mim­ics health­care.

Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures, es­ti­mates from 35 re­spond­ing states in­di­cated cu­mu­la­tive bud­get short­falls of nearly $56 bil­lion for fis­cal 2011. That’s on top of hun­dreds of bil­lions of cuts, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion, health­care and hu­man ser­vices that have al­ready been ex­e­cuted over the past two years.

The Wall Street Jour­nal, mean­while, cited a study by the Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties es­ti­mat­ing the col­lec­tive bud­get gap for the states could hit $180 bil­lion.

Top­ping a list of ail­ing states was Illi­nois, with a pro­jected short­fall of nearly $13 bil­lion, or more than one-third of its fis­cal 2010 bud­get. With that state al­ready months late in pay­ing schools, uni­ver­si­ties and so­cial ser­vice agen­cies, the chop­ping is well un­der way. Cal­i­for­nia and more than a dozen other states also made the list but were in lesser de­grees of dis­tress.

There’s only one way out of this mess, whether we’re talk­ing health­care, ed­u­ca­tion or any­thing else: the re­turn of sus­tained eco­nomic growth. But that will re­quire per­haps the most chal­leng­ing re­form of all: the re­turn of creative, coura­geous, bi­par­ti­san lead­er­ship at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment.

Un­til that hap­pens, more and more Amer­i­cans will be left be­hind.

DAVID MAY As­sis­tant Manag­ing


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