Moving on to other reforms
Unfortunately, the education debate mirrors healthcare in too many ways
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