LOS ANGELES – It’s de rigueur to blame public schools for a country’s domestic economic problems and for its projected inability to compete in the global economy of the future. Yet a closer look at the evidence, at least in the United States, over the past three decades reveals a completely different picture of the causes.
The campaign to undermine confidence in public schools began in 1983 with the report “A Nation at Risk,” written by a prestigious committee under Secretary of Education Terrel Bell. Endorsed in a speech by President Ronald Reagan, it contained the now-familiar warning: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Then, in 1990, a bipartisan group calling itself the National Center on Education and the Economy issued “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.” It charged that public schools had failed to teach essential knowledge and skills, thus slowing industrial production “to a crawl.” Taken together, the two scathing indictments of public schools seemed to doom the U.S.
What followed instead was a quarter century of unprecedented economic growth that saw dazzling wealth creation and technological progress. In his newly updated book “The Growth Experiment Revisited,” Lawrence Lindsey explains why and how this happened. It had nothing to do with public schools. Instead, it was caused by lowering tax rates and regulations, and creating incentives to produce, innovate and take risks.
Nevertheless, reformers persist in trying to lay the blame on public schools. Their newest strategy is to charge that companies can’t find enough qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Therefore, it has to be the fault of schools. This argument was made most recently in an op-ed by Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil and chairman of the Business Roundtable’s Education and Workforce Committee.
It’s far more likely, however, that companies tend to impose overexacting requirements in their search for new hires and then complain when they can’t find a perfect match.
Consider the study “Guestworkers in the High-Skill U.S. Labor Market,” which was published in April by the Economic Policy Institute. It found “consistent and clear trends suggesting that the United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations.”
These workers are already here. They are the high school and college graduates who have not found work in their field one year after graduation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the No. 1 reason is pay, promotion and working conditions. But companies maintain there’s a shortage of domestic workers in the hope that more H-1B visas will be issued.
That’s because foreign workers are willing to accept lower wages and poorer working conditions.
The usual corporate rebuttal to the wage issue is that the most productive people will eventually be paid higher wages once they prove their worth. But the hypocrisy of this claim remains unchallenged.
Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s highest paid CEOs over the past two decades were either fired, forced to take government bailouts or in charge of companies that paid huge sums in fraudulent claims. Evidently nothing succeeds like failure in the executive suite.
If there was a connection between education and earnings, then why have the top 10 percent of earners received more than half of the nation’s total income in 2012 when more Americans have college degrees than ever before?
This was the highest level on record since the government started collecting data a century ago. In fact, the top 1 percent collected more than one-fifth of income earned by everyone. Public schools have the potential to contribute to a robust economy. But their effect is dwarfed by fiscal policies and corporate honesty.
The fifth anniversary of the demise of Lehman Brothers that started the financial meltdown is a grim reminder. Too bad the truth is given short shrift in today’s debate.
Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the United States.
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