By 2042 America's minorities will form the majority of people (Photo: Mike Frantel)

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US education needs to prepare
for 2042 demographic time bomb

By Mayraj Fahim, Local Government Adviser*

11 May 2009: Attention to education, and its importance, has been made the subject of a renewed and sharper focus following President Obama’s call for reform and the announcement of a new program of advancement. Several media articles have outlined the President’s ambitious agenda. A piece in USA Today stated: ”The goals include improved early childhood education programs, higher standards in elementary and high schools, better teacher pay and recruitment, and expanded college aid programs.“ It continued: “Obama tied education reform to addressing the economic crisis, saying a better educated workforce will enhance the nation's long-term prosperity.” The latter statement makes clear that the President realizes the stakes are high. The public might be more willing to see this goal as being as important as their job prospects if he had also made clear that the education problems facing the country coincide with its demographic time bomb due to detonate by 2042.

Full version of article including references and source material

The year 2042, according to the US Census, is when the country’s former minorities become the new majority. As reports on the education of this group indicate, most students in this category today do not graduate from high school, let alone college. Unfortunately for America, this timeframe will also mark the point when social security trust fund reserves are due to run out (according to the 2005 Board of trustees annual report) and Medicare’s unfunded costs are expected to bite. There is also the fact that interest costs alone on US Treasury debt are due to subsume all other costs, a state of affairs raised in the early 1990s by the documentary Millennium Money. Last year another documentary on the issue of rising US debt, I.O.U.S.A., was supported by a tour of some of the experts quoted in the movie. Yet linking all this to the imminent challenges facing Americans is an uncommon exercise. The news articles on the President’s education agenda also reflected this lack of recognition

What this means is that America requires a drastic growth of its taxpayers’ base. And given the demographic facts, this implies focusing on the most neglected section of the population – the greater part of which attends those schools with the most extreme problems.

As this author’s previous article on school reform asserted, it is one thing to address the problem of poor financial management and quite another to improve and build upon student performance - a task that has met with few successes. This is a reality, and the quality of life of the next and successive generations depends upon the successful meeting of this challenge. This educational hazard has many aspects, which to this author at least requires careful thought. It might perhaps involve new thinking on the means of delivery of education in America and on its materials and goals, especially on how it is paid for.

Spending on education is a major question. Consider the fact that the state with the highest minority population, California, is also a state where taxpayers have placed a cap on property taxes, the primary source of education funding. It is not surprising that California’s education results are in crisis, despite the fact that this state is the wealthiest in the country.

As revealed by the 2007 report by the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, education in California is in a form of crisis that extends beyond mere minorities. The report explained: “California’s white middle class students perform well below comparable white students across the nation. For example, California’s white 8th graders’ NAEP math scores are well below white 8th graders in most states, and their reading scores rank behind white students in all but two states. Similarly, California’s non-poor 8th graders rank below non-poor students in all but six states in both reading and math. In sum, California has an education crisis that applies across the state and affects all students from all groups." Meanwhile, as a recent article mentioned, California’s anti-tax crusaders are again sharpening their swords in this time of crisis when taxes are being raised to fill budget holes, which has also led to pink slips for more than 20,000 teachers in this ‘beleaguered’ state – at least in terms of education.

The multifaceted challenge
1) The need to build capacity in poor minority students

In Texas, it was revealed: ”Texas schoolchildren who need the most help to succeed in schools often get the least, according to a national study that tracked local and state per-student spending from 1999 to 2005.” This was noted in an article published on 17 January 2008, which further stated that the study by the Washington DC-based advocacy organization, The Education Trust, cited Texas as one of 16 states where the gap in funding between high-poverty and low-poverty school districts widened during those six years, despite the state's share-the-wealth funding system designed to guarantee equity.

"Texas is going the opposite direction," said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. "You have kids coming in further behind and you have to get them where they need to be with less and that's not fair." The Texas study revealed a tragic fact in a state that became a minority-majority state by 2005 (when it joined California, Hawaii and New Mexico) and is the second most populous state after California.

Providing less help to students in need is particularly harmful, as studies have shown that there is a major vocabulary gap between students whose parents have different income levels. This gap grows over the course of time. Meanwhile, this difference is reinforced when poor children are ‘ghettoized’. Education activist and author Jonathan Kozol has been writing on this subject for decades.

As noted in a 2005 book review in the New York Times on the author’s most recent work [he] ”has been writing books rather similar to this one since ‘Death at an Early Age’ in 1968. He is persistent, it is true, but so is the problem that has aroused his passions since he began teaching in a Boston school more than 40 years ago, when he was a young civil rights activist. That problem is the conditions under which we educate the children of the poor and minorities.” In short, due to this ‘ghettoization’ of their schooling their vocabularies remain the same generally as those of their peers. This raises the question: Is this, then, an acceptable state of affairs for a country where such children will no longer be in the minority? This whole issue needs to be addressed before solutions can be found.

It is a self-evident fact that reading improves vocabulary, no matter where the particular child is educated. This is something that schools in the teaching of children at all levels might need to consider, since the advent first of television and then of computer gadgets means that children are no longer reading as they once did, even in wealthier families.

2) The need to improve the education of all students
As OECD comparative tests have revealed, American students are undergoing a deterioration in educational attainment. Furthermore, children are less likely to graduate than their parents. As highlighted by a recent report: “the United States is now the only industrialized country where young people are less likely than their parents to earn a diploma”.

The graying of America requires the next generation not to be less educated than their parents. In fact, ageing populations is one of the factors that will burden successive generations around the world. This means that there will be competition for educated immigrants, who will themselves form part of a dwindling pool because of such ageing. Countries must face this burdensome predicament by greatly improving the education and means of achievement of their most neglected segments of the population.

3) The necessity of producing students able to fulfill the needs of a modern economy
In recent years, the FIRE economy is said to be the leading employer, yet only 28% of Americans have first degrees, according to a Census Report. The same report noted that the Asian rate of 49.4% for a BA or higher degree exceeded that of non-Hispanic whites (30.6%) and was more than double that of African-Americans (17.6%) and Hispanics (12.1%).

In browsing listings for finance-related jobs, one finds that even lowly administrative assistant posts require a college degree. Yet American graduation rates reflect the needs of a manufacturing-led economy. Those unemployable within the FIRE sector found jobs in the service sector, but with the bursting of the real estate bubble, which was a prime driver of a consumer-based economy where 70% of the GDP was consumer-led, the service sector has collapsed (and unlike the FIRE sector it is not being propped up with government help).

The government must determine where the future jobs will be and to educate Americans for them. American workers do not enjoy the benefits of the post-war economy, where developing countries were not rising economically and Europe was devastated by war. They now have to contend with an intensity of competition not faced by their predecessors. Corporations have addressed this by outsourcing jobs or importing cheaper foreign workers. This has not turned out to be a sustainable policy for the health of the American economy. After all, educated Americans need an adequate job in order to pay taxes and meet the vast debt that the government has racked up over past years, or expects to tax for the purpose of benefit programs. As Germany has shown by example, one can have a high tax economy while still being a major manufacturing economy. But Germany does not have the military expenses that burden America. Its revenues have been distributed in a different budgetary environment.

4) The need to provide adequate funding
The anti-tax raising culture that spread around the country in the aftermath of the Proposition 13 property tax revolt in California, requires more focus on financial management and directing adequate funding to urgent needs. Recourse to a stronger program for educating financial managers by the Government Finance Officers Association for schools (especially those with weak students) might also be required in this regard.

Poor schools suffer from poor revenue redistribution by states. A study of 40,000 students by the US Department of Education revealed that students attending poor schools (even those from wealthy or middle class families) scored 2 grade levels lower on average in mathematics and 4 grade levels lower in reading than students in wealthy schools. Further, a 1997 report by the US General Accounting Office found that the average school in a wealthy district received 24% more funding than the average school in a poor district. It also found that disparities in funding between school districts depended primarily on three factors: The state-targeted funding to poor districts; the state's share of total funding, regardless of whether the targeting effort was low; and the local tax effort in poor communities.

In California and other states, elected officials resorted to the debt solution. But that recourse has hatched eggs whose mature chickens are now coming home to roost in the debt and solvency crisis of both states and local units. It should be mentioned that credit rating agency Moody’s has announced recently that it might downgrade municipal bonds.

Establishing an adequately educated population to overcome demographic challenges is vital to the hour. One thing to keep in mind, especially with respect to African-Americans, is that African immigrants in the United States have a different per capita profile. Joel Kotkin pointed out this fact in an article entitled Ideological Hurricane, where in pertinent part he stated: “The per capita income of African immigrants ($20,100) sharply outranked that of Asian immigrants ($16,700) or Central-American immigrants ($9,400) by the late 1990s. African immigrants also earn much more than native-born Americans ($14,400 per capita).“ The difference between native Americans and immigrants might perhaps be attributed to the education system, which hampers their capacity to become productive taxpayers. American education experts might wish to bear in mind what Kotkin pointed out: that they should perhaps aspire to the development of policies that will provide better income-producing citizens for the future.

*Mayraj Fahim, the author of this article, is City Mayors’ local government adviser. The full version of this article together with reference and source material can be obtained free of charge by emailing the editor, with US education 2009' in the subject line. Please also supply your name and, if applicable, your organisation/company/academic institution.

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