This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

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.