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American Voices: Jon Meacham on saving our schools, and everything else we value

Jon Meacham discusses how education is key to the United States regaining its footing economically, as well as remaining a military power.

JON MEACHAM: Nearly a quarter century ago when I first started working in journalism, I was sent to the county courthouse in Chattanooga, Tennessee where I grew up to cover the annual budget fight over public education. How much did the schools really need? How much were the elected officials willing to spend? What was the money actually going to accomplish?  Was there any way to figure out what worked, and what didn’t?

The issues then were the same as they are now. The difference between 1989 and 2012, though, is that America is in a weaker position globally than it was in that seemingly distant year. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Far from it, 1989 was the year the Berlin wall fell signaling the victorious end of the cold war. It was to be the beginning of another American century.

Except, things haven’t turned out that way. We are losing ground economically. The middle class, one of the great achievements in history, is becoming more of a relic than a reality. When we see reports on programs like the one focusing on high-school dropouts in Philadelphia, we’re seeing the kind of work that’s essential not only in the moral work of reclaiming lives in crisis but in making us competitive and secure.  For make no mistake, there’s a causal chain running through such policy questions. Without education, we are weaker economically. Without economic power, we are weaker in terms of national security. No great military power has ever remained so without great economic power.

I didn’t understand this back when I was covering the county courthouse. What happened there seemed a world — a galaxy away — from the kinds of issues incumbent leaders such as George H.W. Bush and James Baker were dealing with.  I wish I had understood it then, for I would have understood that the scramble over taxes and spending for schools was not a domestic issue but, in a way, a defense appropriation. We don’t have any excuses left. It’s clear that Philadelphia gets it. And here’s hoping everybody else does, too. If we don’t save the schools, we put everything else we value at risk. Everything.


  • John

    John Meacham, nice try.  More money for schools is a national defense priority, you say.

    Lies and propaganda!  No amount of money will ever be enough.  As Congress is to spending money and balancing the budget, so schools are to spending money and doing their job.

    Many schools spend $10,000 or more per year per pupil.  And still they produce too many students who drop out, can’t read, or do math.

    Public schools, government schools, need to be abolished and replaced with a per-pupil voucher system.  Parents should get a voucher for each child, equal to the total sum of funds the school district receives divided by the number of school age children, with the legal right to spend it on any private school they wish, or for home school, with no strings attached at all.     

    Yeah, there’d be abuses, but nothing like the existing system, which besides all the problems your industry has been perpetuating for the last 30 years, has the problem of wasting the natural talents and interests of every child by squeezing them through a one-size-fits-all mold for 13 years, hardly ever touching upon those interests in any real meaningful way for the vast majority of children.  I’m old enough to have heard your sad story for the last 30 years.

    The public school system with all the money it already has is responsible for America’s low state of educational quality compared to other countries.  Pouring more money into it is a waste.  It needs vast reform.

    The truth is, you are part of an evil conspiracy.  You are telling people they need to fork over more taxes, while your very system which is destroying national security.  “No great military power has ever remained so without great economic power.”  Why hell do you think the education of American children has been so screwed up for so long?  I ask that question rhetorically.

  • Jan

    These programs are a good wake up call to many. Another dropout program about black neighborhoods with no future offered, except drug sales, had no answer. Tonight’s about re-engaging was better. Unfortunately, seeing young people only as corporate fodder, or necessary for the country’s world standing, IS the problem. Educate, means to draw out what’s already there. 
    Some of these children are the future poets, musicians, artists, scientists, teachers, geologists, sports figures. Finland has what is considered the best schools. The teachers run the school. They decide the curriculum as a group, and set the goals. There is no downtown Administration. There is no union. They are professional teachers. Our normal schools need upgrading.
    Americans need to look around. La Sistema, the wonderful program for the poor that started in South America, and is beginning to emerge here meets the needs of the soul first. The children are introduced to music, then the instruments, then Given their choice of instruments. When asked how does that overcome the poverty, the founder said, “If they have music, they are already rich.” So true. They study music for 3 hours, a day. Dudamel, of the LA Symphony is one of their grads.
     They learn to take care of their instrument, discipline, to work together, all the things that build character, all through the work and joy of learning music together.The rest of the academics follow.They take their precious instruments home with them. They have worth and meaning, something important of their own. They have no need for drugs, or going off in the wrong direction. 
    Another good idea is school uniforms. They equate to adults work clothes. Dressy or play clothes or suggestive, are not suitable. This is not minor. Gangs have colors that identify them. Soon the younger siblings start wearing the older brothers colors to elementary school, starting fights, and carrying the gang mentality to the next generation. Long Beach,CA introduced uniforms in elementary school and stopped gang warfare that had led to murder.
    Another CA school district that was mostly black, started an all black academy, with all black male teachers with good success. Maybe intermediate school would be a good time to separate the students to girls school and boys school. High school should be a time to choose an academic path or a trade school. The discipline of serious apprenticeship in the adult work world would command the alert work ethic that seems to be missing today.
    The arts and physical education are not frills, they are part of the whole man. Every student should have the opportunity to travel to another country. We have the resources, we just need to use them in a wiser way. Keep up the good work.


  • jan

    Our kids are our future.  A lot of people don’t understand that.  Others… well, they’re just plain old fashioned greedy.  They think that cutting taxes is a way to become prosperous.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I know nothing about big city schools.  It seems to me that it would be easy to get lost and disappear in an ocean of several thousand students.  I question whether they would be able to address the needs of individual students without giving them a feeling of humiliation but I could be wrong about that. 

    Back in the stone age when we had small schools, teachers knew which students were having problems and were able to spend individual time on students, either during class or after school if the parents gave permission.  The small town I lived in had a voluntary after school program where the teacher could tutor a few students in subjects they might be having trouble with.  I’m not sure but I think I remember the teacher calling me up and asking.  I know I gladly gave permission for my kids to stay after school if they needed the extra tutoring in a subject.  They’re both college graduates, by the way.  Having teachers who know you by name does make a difference and individual attention can make up for lack of the latest equipment.    

    The way I look raising taxes.  I have grandkids now.  I want them to be educated.  Although they live in a different school district, I’m sure others with grandkids in the school district I live in, feel the same way so if the local school says they need tax money I cast my vote for it.  Kids who get an education are less likely to turn to crime to support themselves and that ensures I’m personally a little safer further down the road.  Again, I cast my vote in favor of tax money for schools. 

  • runi

    Here is one thing that happens with some public school systems. When “my” city’s public schools began to go downhill in the late 1970s, we transferred both of our daughters to private schools.  Each daughter had one child, and neither grandchild (now in their 20s) ever attended public school.  In one of the city’s zip codes, more than 50% of KG-12 students are enrolled in private or parochial schools.  The public schools here are now disaccredited.

    This illustrates two “forces” that become obvious when elected officials don’t do their jobs. (1) the people who can afford to protect their children (and who frequently don’t have many children in the first place) will–well–protect their children, and (2) some members of subsequent generations will severely restrict their number of children to ensure that they can afford to educate the children they have.  (For example, our own mayor attended a private high school, and so do his two children.)

  • Walter Antoniotti

    Why do you only consider what academics with the vested interest to controlling the money feel is the solution to improving education. Why not consider what economist think about investing in education. I’ve collect them for about fifteen years at
    Included are quotes with book page references from Greenspan, Gallbraith, Thurow, Krugman,
    Drucker, Murray, and a few less known economists.

    Most life long educators agree on what to do but don’t control general direct which is
    determined by politicians, parents, and academics. All have a vested interest.