The recent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report on the sorry state of American education has added to the debate on education reform by claiming that our education system is a national security risk. According to the results released by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein,
“Human capital will determine power in the current century, and the failure to produce that capital will undermine America’s security… Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy.”
The report outlines several current problems facing American education:
- Many Americans can’t qualify for military or foreign service because they do not have the breadth of knowledge necessary for the job responsibilities.
- Students leave school lacking the critical thinking skills for complex problems in cyber-security, cyber warfare and intelligence infrastructures.
- Poor education cannot produce innovators, which damages America’s competitive edge against other nations.
- Perceived as well as actual educational inequalities destroy social cohesion that damages national commitment.
What’s Old in Ed Reform is New Again
The claim that poor education is a national security risk is nothing new: Over 50 years ago the United States faced a crisis in national security that transformed American education forever. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into space. As described by historian Roger Guillemette, the American response was nothing short of panic and hysteria:
The Chicago Daily News declared that if the Soviets “could deliver a 184-pound ‘moon’ into a predetermined pattern 560 miles out into space, the day is not far distant when they could deliver a death-dealing warhead onto a predetermined target almost anywhere on the earth’s surface.” Newsweek magazine dolefully predicted that several dozen Sputniks equipped with nuclear bombs could “spew their lethal fallout over the U.S. and Europe.” Senator Lyndon Johnson envisioned a day when the Soviets would be “dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses,” while Senator Mike Mansfield ominously announced, “What is at stake is nothing less than our survival.”
Yet there are some striking differences between the responses to the Sputnik Crisis and the suggestions made by the Council on Foreign Relations. The Sputnik Crisis led directly to the start of the Space Race that helped define the Cold War and spurred a reinvestment in American higher education, including the passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The Act channeled $887 million into new science and math curricula, the expansion of the public university system, and a vast student loan and financial aid program. The goal was to develop a military-science industry that could further America’s national security goals, including national defense. Public money was poured into public education.
Differences Between Then and Now
But the recommendations of the Council on Foreign Relations, a private think-tank that publishes the influential foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs, suggest completely different solutions, many of which encourage privatization. This list of three recommendations comes directly from the CFR website:
- Implement educational expectations and assessments in subjects vital to protecting national security. “With the support of the federal government and industry partners, states should expand the Common Core State Standards, ensuring that students are mastering the skills and knowledge necessary to safeguard the country’s national security.”
- Make structural changes to provide students with good choices. “Enhanced choice and competition, in an environment of equitable resource allocation, will fuel the innovation necessary to transform results.”
- Launch a “national security readiness audit” to hold schools and policymakers accountable for results and to raise public awareness. “There should be a coordinated, national effort to assess whether students are learning the skills and knowledge necessary to safeguard America’s future security and prosperity. The results should be publicized to engage the American people in addressing problems and building on successes.”
The report clearly supports the adoption of widespread “school choice.” In an interview with PBS, [Watch the interview here] Joel Klein said,
“I actually think the public schools get better when they face competition. Most people get better when they face competition…in America, what makes us so successful is the innovation, the competition, the focus on merit. And all of those things have been absent from the K-12 system. So, every viewer you have watching this show wants choice for his or her kid. I don’t know anyone who didn’t want a choice for his or her kid.”
In other words, the report suggests that privatization—the diversion of public funds to privately owned charter schools and other non-public organizations, such as tutoring centers—will solve the American education crisis. This was not an option in 1957. Public spending was focused on public schools, and the economy and scientific innovation boomed. We funded public institutions, and put a man on the moon. The success of public education at that time suggests that privatization is only one possible option for the rescue of our K-12 system.
Why Funding Must be Discussed
What is more noteworthy about the CFR suggestions, though, is that there is not a single mention of increased funding for higher education. That seems to be the major difference between 1957 and 2012: the response to the Sputnik Crisis was to invest in higher education by expanding our state colleges and universities, but the complete opposite is happening right now. Instead, federal financial aid is undergoing the most significant cuts in decades. According to Inside Higher Ed, among the cuts is the elimination of financial aid eligibility for students without a high school diploma or GED, even though those students arguably can benefit from the learning opportunities provided by colleges and add to our national collective intellectual capital.
With states across the nation slashing education budgets and, as the situation in California shows, capping student enrollment or cutting services altogether, it would seem that more federal funding should be a priority. Before any of the skills necessary to increasing and maintaining national security can be developed by college students, they need to actually be able to enroll in college. Until that need is addressed, any suggestions for reform in higher education need to be carefully evaluated.