No do-overs

Consider the following: The C-17 is a massive, high-wing, 4-engine, T-tailed cargo plane, built by Boeing, each costing $330 million. Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated to Congress that the Air Force has sufficient numbers of C-17s to meet its needs. It requires no further planes.

Nevertheless, Congress has included in the current 2010 Defense Department Budget (approaching $700 billion) $2.5 billion for 10 more C-17s. Parts for this leviathan transport come from 650 suppliers that employ 30,000 people in 43 states. Cost to date for the plane: $65 billion.

Feel free to extrapolate from this one example to countless others, representing billions. And not to forget that our military budget all but equals what the rest of the world spends on defense.

And here's the context: it's estimated (I'm never sure how anyone can do this) that for the cost of those ten C-17's almost 142,000 children and adults could receive healthcare for one year; the salaries of over 6,000 public safety workers could be paid; 4,649 music and arts teachers could be hired; 22,610 students could receive college scholarships; and there would be enough money left over to create 29,610 Head Start Centers. Accurate or not, you get the idea.

With the dollars from just those ten planes, a great deal that needs to be done could be done. And yet we lack the political will to make hard choices. It's astonishing.

Consider that $2.5 billion and our public schools: Is it hyperbole to argue that a world-class education for all of our children is a civil rights issue? Is it not a matter of fundamental fairness and equality to educate all of our children to the same standards, from Georgia to New Mexico, thereby preparing them for a global market place where sophisticated literacy and mathematical acumen are requisite, and intellectual curiosity and resiliency and adaptability paramount?

The tragedy of the current group of students now somewhere on the academic continuum (K-12) is that there are no do-overs. This will always be the quality of their public education experience. Some schools are closing, many are cutting back, classroom sizes are increasing, and faculties are truncated with layoffs endemic.

The infrastructure of our schools is atrocious. As Bob Herbert points out in a recent New York Times column, the children of Maytown, Pa., go to school in a building built in 1861; the ancient gym was donated by the class of 1946; the walls are filled with "encapsulated" asbestos; the electricity is unreliable (you run two overhead projectors simultaneously at your peril); and there is no air conditioning. "You can travel the United States," writes Herbert, "and find comparable, or worse, conditions in schools throughout the country." Again, recall that $2.5 billion for ten planes the Air Force neither wants nor needs.

Meanwhile, according to a report from Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, Boston, 6.2 million students, between the ages of 16-24, when surveyed in 2007, said they had dropped out. The majority were Latino and black. Another question comes to mind, risking again hyperbole: is this a form of educational apartheid? Can any institution charged with educating our nation's children accept such losses? Can America? The impact on our economy of having an undereducated citizenry is stunning, their lifetime earnings severely limited, their vulnerability to economic downturns increased. And not to forget the personal loss: lives lived on the fringes of society's informational highway.

According to a recent New York Times article, America's education advantage, unrivaled since WWII, is fast eroding. Of all the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "only Mexico, New Zealand, Spain and Turkey have lower graduation rates than America." O.E.C.D. estimates that about 7 in 10 U.S. students graduate with a diploma. Canadian 15-year-olds are, on average, more than one school year ahead of American 15-year-olds.

Educators are quick to point out that the fault lies not just with our public schools but represents a perfect storm wherein family dysfunction and cultural factors come into play, buttressed by a strain of anti-intellectualism which has always been the subtext to America's view of education.

And it's not just the quality of education and the infrastructure of our schools; it's also our nation's infrastructure that is failing. Roads, bridges, water treatment plants, levees, the electrical grid, ports, dams are in needed of serious repair or replacement if we are to remain competitive in the global economy. The cost will be high. The cost of doing nothing will be higher.

This is not a conversation Washington wants to have with the American people. We have grown accustomed to having services with payments deferred (No new taxes!). And we have deemed the billions we spend on defense sacrosanct. Meanwhile, our nation and our schools grow evermore frayed. It's a trajectory that can lead only to ruin. We desperately need that $2.5 billion. And more.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland and writes columns for the Daily Tidings.

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