Blog: The Educated Reporter

Vice Presidential Debate: Education Waits on Back Burner

Education got short shrift during the vice presidential debate Thursday, with nary a mention of the role of the federal government in public K-12 schools or higher education.

However, there was ample time dedicated to the overarching theme of this election cycle – which presidential candidate is more likely to guide the nation to full economic recovery. On that front, there was plenty of competing views and often data-heavy rhetoric. But in the context of how best to address a laundry list of pressing concerns including health care and unemployment, neither candidate invoked education as critical factor. As Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog noted, the exceptions were Vice President Joe Biden’s denouncement of Republican plans to cut funding to Head Start programs, and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s assertion that the federal stimulus used to backfill budget shortages at the state level – which in turn helped public schools — had been a mistake.

I’m always puzzled when education doesn’t come up more during debates at all levels. You don’t have to look far to find research that suggests education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet. Let’s start with health care: how educated we are has a direct impact on our overall wellness. The less education an individual has, the less likely they are to have health insurance, and the more likely they are to use public emergency rooms for basic care. Rates of obesity are also higher among those with lower levels of educational attainment, which means they are at greater risk for a plethora of associated diseases. Those costs add up to billions annually for states in emergency room costs and lost productivity.

What about unemployment? It’s arguable that there’s no time that education is of greater potential value than during an economic downturn, when individuals who lack a high school diploma are typically the hardest hit. Community colleges can play an essential role in retraining working adults for new jobs. That means communities that invest in public education can reap long-term dividends.

Here’s just one example: In a recent report from the Brookings Institution, researchers determined that the education level of a city’s workforce, as well as the diversity of its economic base, was a significant factor in how deeply it was affected by the recession. Cities with more educated workers (including Denver) have rebounded more quickly than those where the average level of educational attainment is lower (such as Las Vegas).

Clearly, there are exceptions: Some cities, such as San Francisco, have struggled during the recession despite having a relatively well-educated populace. But overall, the report concluded, from 2005 to 2011 the highest unemployment rates were in metropolitan areas with larger “education gaps” – meaning a shortage of educated workers available to fill employer demand. The difference in unemployment rates for individuals with a bachelor’s degree compared with those with only a high school diploma is significant, ranging from 2.8 in Poughkeepsie to 14.7 percent in Detroit, according to the Brookings report.

Education will hopefully get more attention during next week’s presidential debate, a town hall format to be held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. The topics are both domestic and foreign policy. If you’re wondering what education might have to do with the latter, the answer is plenty – a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the shoddy state of the nation’s public schools are putting the nation’s security at risk.

And just how threatened are oppressive regimes by the American export of an equitable public school system? The Taliban actually put out a hit on 14-year-old girl who had spoken up for her right to learn, shooting her in the head and chest as she got off her school bus in northwestern Pakistan.


Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Contact Emily Richmond. Follow her on Twitter @EWAEmily.

Read other Educated Reporter articles.