"I am quite certain that America will not be a confident leader in the future if, in fact, we cannot compete. And we cannot pete if our population is not educated to the tasks of the 21st century."
Trying to discuss the role that the federal government should play in public education is always a testy move - and much more so today than four centuries ago, when the New England colonies made public education compulsory, and even two centuries ago, when Thomas Jefferson laid much of the groundwork for publicly educating the masses. "I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength; 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it." Indeed.
So it is today that school districts and school boards labor over every aspect of education. The goal, of course, is to help children become productive citizens who help secure their individual freedom, and, consequently, secure America's, too. But in these very trying times - when terrorists and their enablers view our collective freedoms as threats to their very existence - our strongest offense is a defensive stance that breeds mediocrity.
Increasingly, distractions - poor or wealthy, black or white, straight or gay, etc., etc. - have moved us far away from teaching and learning and ensconced us in the land of excuses. The Colonists asked themselves: What is the purpose of public education? We have forgotten.
We have even fooled ourselves into believing that we moved away from the ominous question - how shall the commoner be schooled? - because of a 1954 Supreme Court ruling. We still today ask: What role does the government play, even though Jefferson initially laid that question to rest.
In the latter 20th century, then-President Carter's answer and that of the Democrat-controlled Congress was to create the Department of Education. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan said he would abolish the agency, but walked away from his promise. In 1994, Sen. John McCain said he would favor eliminating the Education Department. "I would certainly favor doing away with the Department of Energy and I think that given the origins of the Department of Education, I would favor doing away with it as well," Mr. McCain told CNN in 1994. The unions and the status quo held sway throughout the Clinton years. President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act now means the federal government is fully involved in the day-to-day affairs of public schooling.
If public schooling hadn't nosedived, the two of us probably wouldn't be having this particular one-way conversation.
America, understand, is losing its edge.
We recruit teachers from foreign lands. Our intelligence agencies suffer from a language deficit. America fell from third to 17th place in 30 years regarding graduates in science and technology. Remedial classes for college freshmen is fast becoming the norm because primary and secondary outcomes fall way short.
In an interview the other day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked about why education is vitally important to America's future and why, after she officially relinquishes her State Department duties, she will return to the education profession. Miss Rice's CV and family biography turn on education. She established an after-school program, served as a university professor and used her guiding hand on behalf of the Boys & Girls Clubs. Her roots run as deeply in the America South as they do in the education profession. Miss Rice stands as testament to the adage that "it doesn't matter where you're from, what matters is where you're going."
Her perspective is somewhat Jeffersonian. Key policies on education "always have and should be local," Miss Rice said. "But what the federal government can do is use the bully pulpit [to] set expectations ... Accountability is something the federal government can set."
Measuring sticks. The only way to gauge whether teachers are teaching and students are learning.
But again distractions - poor or wealthy, black or white, straight or gay, etc., etc. - abound. The more boxes educrats can check off - poor children, children with disabilities, children for whom English is a second language - the more money the school district receives. Education outcomes become irrelevant.
The federal government is always at the ready for a bailout - even if that means increasing federal aid to cover the increasing costs of tuition to cover remedial classes to overcompensate for the fact that our schools failed to prepare our children for college in the first place.
We need "to stand up to the fact that we keep failing our kids," Miss Rice said. When we fail our kids, our kids fail themselves and our country. When America fails to compete and lead with confidence, we're fit to be slave to the fearful rhythms of the world rather than its leader of the 21st century.
If that happens, it won't matter whether John McCain or Barack Obama is occupying the White House.
Deborah Simmons is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. dsimmons@washington times.com.