Who Is Investing in Our Future?

Candidates and pundits talk nonstop about our national priorities and what it takes to be globally competitive. I see it in their (and their PACs’) commercials, Facebook ads and Twitter “conversations.” But nothing is a more transparent display of priorities and agenda than this week’s budget proposals in Congress. I want to know, who is investing in our future? Who is going to strengthen and grow the middle class? Who is going to improve the readiness of our youth? I found my answers in the House and Senate FY2016 budgets. The House budget plan, which appealed to defense hawks, narrowly passed with a 219-208 vote on Wednesday. The Senate budget proposal, which passed early this morning in a 52-46 vote (with all Democrats voting against it), locked in sequestration limits for many domestic programs, slashing spending for Medicaid, education and health care. Ironically (or classically), these budgets came out the same week Education Trust released Funding Gaps 2015. The report finds that:
U.S. school districts serving the largest populations of low-income students receive roughly $1,200, or 10 percent, less per student in state and local funding than the lowest poverty districts. These gaps add up. For a middle school with 500 students, a gap of $1,200 per student means a shortage of $600,000 per year. For a 1,000-student high school, it means a whopping $1.2 million per year in missing resources.
With these embarrassingly large inequities in funding, it is clear that decision-making at the local and state level isn’t reliable. This challenges all of us to think about the role of the federal government’s budget and policies. Peter Cunningham does this in his recent Real Clear Education analysis, asking, “Do we care about restoring the middle-class American Dream for more people and reversing income inequality? Do we really want opportunity for everyone or just for some?” Given that state and local governments nationwide are not doing the right thing for our low-income and high-risk students, isn’t it the role of the federal government to step in? According to the GOP’s budget, the answer is no. They are not interested in doing what it takes to open up educational opportunities for more students or creating real pathways to the middle class. Instead, they are proposing to cut or freeze the very programs designed to do so. Cunningham runs in the opposite direction:
The only way to achieve this vision in a decentralized system like ours is with a much bigger federal investment. Today, 1-2 percent of the federal budget goes to K-12 education, while 16-20 percent goes to defense, when you include the wars. But education is the real defense industry of the 21st Century so let’s talk about shifting a few percentage points from unwinnable wars and unneeded weapons programs toward public education.
While I am a little more pragmatic about the federal budget than he is, I agree that the rhetoric has to change. Instead of letting the conversation bend towards defense hawks and fiscal conservatives, shouldn’t we cater to our kids and the future of our nation?
Ann Whalen
Ann Whalen is senior advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Prior to returning to the U.S. Department of Education, she served as the director of policy for Education Post. Whalen has served more than five years in the Obama Administration with the U.S. Department of Education. At the department, Ann was director of the Implementation and Support Unit, providing technical assistance to ...

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