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Education Fuels Greatness: Response to Goldberg Op-Ed

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg questioned the belief that investment in education equates to economic growth. He claimed that President Obama’s assumption that education will fuel economic growth is false in that, throughout history, economic progress appears to have dragged education behind it. According to Goldberg, the tail end of the 19th Century experienced both economic growth and a decline in illiteracy, but the new book-loving Americans of the Gilded Age didn’t fuel that growth. He turned to another period in history on the other side of the world for his next point, using East Asia’s economic boom in the 20th Century as an example of education spending rising in response to larger budgets, not vice versa. Both examples show that short-term economic growth of a nation does not hinge on the simultaneous education of its citizens.

This, however, is a myopic view of the history of education. We get it: Goldberg is saying that throwing money at the problem is misguided, a good example being that Japan’s economic struggles have come in spite of money being poured into education over the years.

We agree. Throwing money at any problem isn’t the answer, reallocation is. But what would have happened if Japan had slashed funding over the same period? Where would all those students go given the prohibitive and expensive private school market?

A profitable nation will find ways of investing money in education the same way a profitable family will send their children to better schools, but successful countries tend to be managed by well-educated people and influenced by well-organized thought. Where did those leaders and ideas come from?  To say that solid investment in a state’s education does not lead to economic success is entirely short-sighted. The truth is, given time, investments in education pay out dividends. President Obama’s intention to invest in education is admirable, yet he won’t be in office to reap the benefits. In fact, he might not even be alive.

Let’s take a look at some historical examples that span a larger time-frame than Goldberg’s. We’ll start with Germany, which unified in 1871 and immediately began centralizing industry, commerce, and education. The new formal state began establishing educational standards (a response to private sector demands, admittedly) and began building new types of secondary schools. Did Germany benefit from these investments simultaneously? No, it did not, but it paid out eventually. Germany experienced gradual expansion of its GDP, an arms race with England and France, and a slim margin of defeat in the First World War. The 19th Century German elementary and secondary school system also gave us Albert Einstein. Following Germany’s post-war collapse, the Weimar Republic established free, universal 4-year elementary schools to feed those secondary schools. The long-term result? A 10 year old student who attended this expanded system in the 1920s contributed to one of the most rapid economic expansions in German history in the 1930s, albeit leading to another horrific world war.

We can turn to England for another example across an even longer period of time. As early as 1640, England can be credited with devising a universal system of schools for boys and girls, which included a graduated and standardized curriculum. Despite the roadblock of The Restoration,  the curriculum was taking on modern form by the turn of the 18th Century, particularly as a result of Urbanization. This period from the 17th to the 18th Centuries is commonly known as the First British Empire, but the sun still set on it. It was not until Britain’s “Imperial Century,” mostly throughout the 19th Century, that England ruled the world with no significant rival. As it was unchallenged at sea, Great Britain had expanded to over 10 million square miles and 400 million people. Partial credit can be given to the economic foundation set up in the First Empire in the form of trading posts and exotic ports established all over the world in the Age of Exploration, however, to deny the influence of the First Empire’s education system on the Imperial Century would be unfair to English educators spanning over 250 years.

Education doesn’t immediately fuel economic growth. The children in school today will not be running the country tomorrow, next year, or even in a decade. Like any good investment, education takes time, but just as reinvesting dividends can make the owner a lot of money, reinvesting in the underlying equity of education can make a country great.

That’s the real issue here: Greatness. Economic growth and educational attainment are not mutually exclusive concepts. A country can invest in heavy industry, which requires only the training of warm bodies to man the shop, but who will run the company? Who will trade its stocks? Who will retool the machinery to make it more efficient? If no investment in education was made to cover these processes, the industrial base will fail and the economy will collapse. Likewise, an educational system will fail if there are no jobs to fuel taxes and tuition. Americans cannot thrive on short-term economic bursts without funding the education to sustain them.

In the end, Goldberg’s only fault is that he separated economic growth from educational investment. The term “Class” here can be particularly appropriate for both halves of this walnut, and sociologists and scholars tend to agree that investment in education, regardless of your class status, can (and does) lead directly to economic growth for all.

Again, the issue here is Greatness. The DJI returned to the 14,000 mark last week for the first time since 2007, just before one of the largest economic collapses in American history. If America wants to run a sustainable business, it will have to invest in education, specifically school choice. America will have to completely revamp the way it spends EdDollars, and it will have to loosen its grip on its public school monopoly while maintaining monetary allocation. This is a lot to ask of a country that has done education the same way for the better part of a century, but the future of our nation depends on it, as well as the lives of our children.

Keep America great – Invest in School Choice.

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