A crisis in the U.S. public education system poses a “very grave national security threat,” requiring an overhaul to offer families more choices, business, education and political leaders said in a report.
Along with undermining economic competitiveness and increasing inequality, subpar public schools threaten recruiting for the State Department, intelligence agencies and the armed forces, according to a task force headed by Joel Klein, the former New York City school chief now at News Corp., and Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of State.
The report, which the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan research organization, is to release today, follows international assessments of student achievement that have placed U.S. schoolchildren below their peers in other countries such as Japan and China. The policy prescriptions, which have already sparked controversy within the task force, are timed partly to spur discussion in the Presidential election, Klein said.
“The failure of U.S. K-12 schools to prepare young Americans with essential skills and knowledge puts this nation’s economic growth and competitiveness, physical security, information security, and national character at risk,” the task force said in the report.
The group’s members include Craig Barrett, former chief executive officer of Intel Corp.; Louis V. Gerstner Jr., former CEO of International Business Machines Corp.; Margaret Spellings, former U.S. education secretary; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Seventy-five percent of U.S. citizens between 17 and 24 aren’t qualified to join the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records or have too little education, the report said. Jobs go unfilled even amid high unemployment in positions requiring scientific and high- technology expertise, according to the task force.
The group’s broad recommendations, including tougher curriculum standards adopted across states and accountability through testing, resemble the agenda of President Barack Obama’s administration. The task force calls for a “National Security Readiness Audit” that would measure whether students were learning skills such as computer programming and foreign language.
States and school districts should also promote “school choice,” such as charter schools — privately managed public schools — and vouchers, in which parents are given tax money to spend where they choose, including at private schools, according to the report.
“It’s an American solution to an American problem,” Klein said in a phone interview. “Competition and choice have the greatest potential to stimulate innovation.”
Klein ran the New York City public schools under Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News. Klein is now CEO of the education unit of News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s New York-based media and entertainment company. The division sells technology to U.S. public schools.
Several members of the task force, including Weingarten, disagreed on its tone and recommendations, according to their written dissents. Parts of the report cast “public schools in the worst possible light, while ignoring facts to the contrary” and demoralizing teachers, Weingarten wrote.
Vouchers and charters don’t systematically improve the system and instead “deplete badly needed resources from the public schools that educate 90 percent of our students,” Weingarten said.
The message from the majority of the task force echoed a 1983 report, called “A Nation at Risk.” Commissioned by President Ronald Reagan, it fueled three decades of efforts to overhaul U.S. schools.
“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war,” the earlier report said.
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