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Condoleezza Rice: Education Could Be ‘Greatest National Security Challenge’

March 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new Council on Foreign Relations report spelled out the need for more science, history and foreign languages in U.S. schools -- and linked education to national security interests. Jeffrey Brown discusses the report with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the tie between educating our children and national security.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s by now a familiar warning: Our public schools are not adequately educating our children.

A new report put out by the Council on Foreign Relations frames the risk in a global context, impacting both our economic and military might — among its recommendations, expanding a core curriculum in school districts across the country beyond an emphasis on reading and math to include more science, technology, history, and foreign languages, offer students more choice and competition to public schools, and launch a national security readiness audit to raise awareness and hold schools accountable.

The 30-member task force was headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein.

I sat down with the two of them in Washington this morning.

Condoleezza Rice, Joel Klein, welcome.

JOEL KLEIN, former New York City Schools Chancellor: Thank you.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, former U.S. Secretary of State: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Secretary Rice, why frame this as a national security issue? And make it concrete. What’s the specific impact you see of poor education?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: National security is broader than what you can do with your military forces, obviously.

But, even there, when it comes to the very tangible assets that the United States needs to defend itself, the education of people who can be soldiers, too many people can’t qualify for military service.

JEFFREY BROWN: Simply can’t qualify?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Simply can’t qualify, when it comes to the foreign service or to intelligence agencies or to the ability to have people who can think about the problems of cyber-warfare and cyber-security and critical infrastructure protection.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of the competitiveness of our economy, people who can fill the jobs and be the innovators of the future, so that the United States maintains its economic edge, and then finally the matter of our social cohesion. The United States, we’ve always been held together by the belief that it doesn’t matter where you came from. It matters where you’re going.

And that is — absolutely, without education, we cannot maintain that cohesion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of that, I heard you talk about that this morning, the social cohesion part. We’re sitting here, your report comes out at a time where there’s a lot of sense that the game is a little rigged, that public life is unfair, and in education as well.

JOEL KLEIN: Absolutely.

And that’s what I think. While the secretary made a number of key points, I think both of us feel very strongly that one of the great threats to our national security is social cohesion. If people believe the game is rigged, if people no longer believe that you can start out anywhere and end up at the top successfully in America, that the American dream is part of the past, I think that erodes a sense of belief and confidence in our nation.

It makes us inward-looking. It makes us envious of other people, all the kinds of things that we have avoided as a people. If that turns against us, then I think our national security will be affected.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Today, the sad fact is that, for the children who have the fewest options, the educational system is not delivering. If I can look at your zip code and I can tell whether you’re going to get a good education, we’ve got a real problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: You feel you can do that?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: And I think, increasingly, if you are a child in difficult circumstances, the neighborhood school may simply not be the answer any longer.

JEFFREY BROWN: There have been many reports. Are you seeing something that has happened that has raised the bar here or raised the alarm level? What’s the level of risk that you want us to hear?

JOEL KLEIN: I think we should raise the alarm level. And I think the level of risk is such that, when a secretary of state calls this out as a national security issue, as a major national security issue, I think we need to stop thinking this is somehow a narrow education problem and we will be fine.

And when you ask about social cohesion, these are big, big issues. And for the first time, more parents think their lives are better than their kids. That’s not a winning formula. And so when the secretary talks — both of us feel deeply about this, because it’s our own life’s experience.

I grew up in public housing to a family where nobody ever went to college or knew about college. And it was because of teachers in Astoria, Queens, who changed my entire life.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, if you say there’s a crisis, then what do we do? Now, you go and you look at — you have offered a series of things, most of which have been much discussed, more emphasis on core curriculum, common standards across the U.S., more choice for students.

What is new, beyond putting it into a national security rubric?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, putting it into a national security rubric shouldn’t be underestimated, because it’s very easy if it’s just about my child. And my child can get a good education because I can either put that child in private school or I can move to a community where the schools are good, then I don’t have to worry so much about that child in East Oakland or in South Central L.A., or in Anacostia, for that matter, who won’t get a good education.

But when you say this is a national security problem, then it is a common problem for all of us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, that wades into debates you’ve been having for a long time, right?

And I noted that one of the task force members, Randi Weingarten, head one of the largest teachers union, she says, on the one hand, you say a major public crisis, but then you’re taking steps, in her view, that undermine the public school system, that could address it.

JOEL KLEIN: I don’t think so.

And I think this is both the power of the report — in other words, you’re used to seeing these reports that have 50 different recommendations, and pretty much you know game over.

JEFFREY BROWN: . . . won’t do that.

JOEL KLEIN: Well, it just doesn’t work that way.

So this report focuses on a couple of core levers. The whole nationalization of the standards through the common core, what it means to be an educated American, is a powerful idea. Countries that succeed have that.

But this thing of choice, which — you’re right — has been a big debate, there are two things I think that are significant about this report. One is a wide range of people from a wide range of backgrounds who have come together and, with a very few exceptions, have put a lot of emphasis on this choice notion.

And, second of all, I actually think the public schools get better when they face competition. Most people get better when they face competition. And one of the things the Secretary said from the beginning, which I really think is so powerful, is, we’re not every other country. And models that work elsewhere may not have the same impact here.

But, 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that I don’t see emphasized is — at least explicitly — is money. Resources, you talk about, but money.

And one wonders, where does that all fit in at a time like this, where we’re a little scrunched for it? But. . .

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes.

Well, the interesting thing is if you look at some of the aspects of the report, we have actually increased dramatically over the last several decades the amount of money that is going into the public school system. It’s quite dramatic, in fact. And yet some of the poorest-performing districts are the ones that have the highest per capita per child spending.

And so I believe very strongly in adequately resourcing our educational system. I would never want to under-resource it. But we have to spend the money wisely. And you are not going to get Americans to think about additional funding, even for the K-12 system, when we have the kinds of results that we do in the school districts that spend the most money.

It doesn’t make sense. And so one thing that we say is, let’s really look at problems of misallocation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, finally, you’ve both spent time here in Washington. We’re in the political season. If you could wave your magic wand — and I must say you don’t hear a lot of talk about education so far in the campaign.

If you could wave a magic wand — and, Joel Klein, I’ll start with you — what would you want to hear? What would you want to have done?

JOEL KLEIN: Well, one thing I’d want to hear, for example, in the debates that are now going on, I would want to hear reporters asking questions about, what are you going to do to address the issues of cohesion in this country? What are you going to do to make sure that a kid, regardless of where she grows up, gets an equal shot at the American dream? And how are you going to fix a broken education system?

In the report, we point out that on global tests, American is, out of the industrial countries, 15th, 27th and so forth. When ever were those numbers acceptable? And why aren’t our presidential candidates and our national leaders talking about those issues and saying, you know, we’ve got a lot of short-term issues to deal with, but there’s no more important issue to the long-term future of this country than education?

And we have got to get a populous that sustains its interest long enough to get through the sound bite into the substance.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It can’t be the case that we are so undereducating our children that large numbers of them cannot, maybe 75 percent, not capable of serving in our military. What are we doing? And what are you going to do about it?

I would like to hear the common core endorsed and the governors continuing to work on it. But whatever the specifics, I want to know that those who would lead us know that this may indeed be our greatest national security challenge.

JEFFREY BROWN: Condoleezza Rice, Joel Klein, thanks very much.

JOEL KLEIN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, we’ve posted a link to the commission’s report. Plus, watch what Rice and Klein have to say about funding for arts programs in schools.