Education Is the True Economic Stimulus

Posted June 10, 2009 at 3:12pm

Every time a Member of Congress proposes to take up an issue, a reporter asks: “Shouldn’t Congress be focusing on the economy?—

To which the lawmaker responds: “Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time.—

Congress can not only perform the legislative equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time, it can simultaneously do the hokey-pokey, yodel and vacuum floors. That is to say, Congress is all about multitasking. It doesn’t have to defend itself when it ventures into various policy matters.

Yes, the economy is still in a ditch. Should all matters unrelated to the economy be shoved off until the gross domestic product, unemployment and trade deficit improve? At what point is Congress permitted to govern?

Also, what is meant by the economy? My issue is education. There are many reasons to take up education bills, including economic ones. There are moral arguments as well. Education advocates are in the comfortable position of knowing that education is the engine behind the economy. Anyone needing proof need only read the “stimulus bill— where the single largest expenditure — $100 billion — goes to education because that is where it will have the most impact.

The lost wages from just five years of dropouts exceed the combined federal costs of bailing out the banks, financial institutions, auto industry and American International Group combined. This is an Information Age economy and education is the main currency.

Congress has repeatedly seen the economic benefits of bolstering education. The GI bill allowed millions of World War II veterans to earn college degrees and buy houses. The link between education and accumulation of assets is easily proved. So, if we are determined to take up only the economy — again, not a position I’m advocating — then bring on education reform.

The serious problems facing Congress and the country grow. Health care costs rise as does the number of uninsured citizens. The U.S. auto industry stares into the economic abyss. And the national high school dropout rate of almost 30 percent has remained stubbornly consistent. Some “insiders— might counsel that intractable problems in the midst of a dire economy rule out comprehensive legislative action. But it is exactly the unprecedented convergence of problems that have presented the greatest opportunity to address them.

Business leaders, lawmakers and the public understand that “business as usual— no longer applies to almost any part of their lives. Voters watching their retirement funds dwindle and become beset on many fronts are eager for rededicated efforts to deal with problems; there are no political rewards for those willing to push serious action off until some future economic resurgence.

Take the high school crisis where, according to Education Week, more than 1 million students drop out each year at a enormous cost of hundreds of billions of dollars in lost wages, increased health care costs, social programs and incarceration. Yet, less than 12 percent of high schools produce almost 50 percent of dropouts. At least one of these “dropout factories— exists in every state and in 80 percent of Congressional districts. Congressional action targeting these nonperforming schools for serious turnaround efforts would not only assist millions of students but also add billions from new taxpayers to the federal coffers.

Finally, a pinched view of Congress sidelines some of the big talents under the Dome. The education panel chairmen, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), and ranking members, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), have worked together for years developing major legislation that, if acted upon, will positively change education for generations. On other pressing issues, Members with passion about health care, immigration, transportation and a multitude of other issues are itching to take a crack at the nation’s problems. They shouldn’t be held hostage to the notion that only the economy matters at this time.

While the Congressional committee system has been assailed over the years for being cumbersome, it is actually well-suited for dealing with such large and varied issues. Everybody can be working on something important at the same time. Congresses of old suggested that freshman Members wait until they had some seasoning. Those quaint days are long gone. Freshmen arrive ready to participate — no seasoning required.

Congress’ legislative output waxes and wanes. We may not return to the days of Lyndon B. Johnson, when major legislation seemingly passed weekly. At the same time, we can’t be stymied by the latest movement of the Dow.

To borrow a phrase from another era, let Congress be Congress. Debate, argue, draft, debate some more, pass bills.

Then go ahead and take a walk. And chew gum. And, of course … legislate.

Bob Wise, a former nine-term House Member and governor of West Virginia, is the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit devoted to secondary education policy. He is the author of “Raising the Grade: How High School Reform Can Save Our Youth and Our Nation.—