Society must invest in human capital

Colin Read Press-Republican

At almost a trillion dollars per year, education is just behind health care and Social Security spending and ahead of defense spending among all government expenditures. Clearly, education is an important public investment.

Last week, I made a claim that surprised me. I often write about the state of education, sometimes from what I know, the university experience, and at other times on kindergarten through secondary education. I lament that education seems run less for what the child wants and more for the needs of the industry of education and its vocal stakeholders.

I was wrong, though. While students are the obvious stakeholder, education is not about them. Nor is it about the various guardians of the institution, the professionals paid to further students’ interests. Now, various interests compete to influence education. Taxpayers are rarely fully included in the discussion.

Historically, lone teachers or professors were the guardians, from a one-room schoolhouse to a Socrates spreading wisdom among his flock. This tradition and model lasted for millennia.

Over the last century or two, education delivery became an industry. No longer was a student’s education determined by a relative few. The industry was run like any institution, with practitioners, managers, funders and parents. Individual students probably had the least say.

Eventually, even individual teachers lost control, with most important decisions left to teacher and faculty unions and senates, administrators, legislators and parents that would try to influence them.

Each of these groups has different objectives, some at odds with each other. One group might want to be paid more and have fewer students, while another might prefer lower pay and larger classes. Lost in the struggle was the individual decision of appropriate pay and the right class size, or, for that matter, the optimal subject matter. Education had become commodified and politicized.

It is from that basis I have lamented public education no longer seems to be about kids.

Nor should it be. Let me explain.

I certainly agree that anybody who wants to participate in any free market should receive the product they, or their parents, desire. Private schools, individual trainers and teachers, online classes, or on-the-job training can provide education customers, who are willing to pay, with what they want or need. In these cases, there is no overriding public interest or investment.

However, public education is something for which the entire economy has an interest. We invest in the human capital of students because we realize our economy and society functions better when people are better trained, have more knowledge, are superior critical thinkers or even have an appreciation of the classics, the arts and the myriad fields for which various proponents advocate.

For public education, the taxpayer is the customer and the student the investment vehicle. Yet, we lack an effective taxpayer stakeholder group that guides public education to ensure we have the number of doctors, scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians we need for a globally competitive nation, and perhaps fewer economists, too!

Were society’s interests best represented, we would provide the largest subsidy based on the greatest societal need. If we, the investors, determine how we must invest to be productive and competitive, we would educate in a radically different manner.

For example, those who want to become doctors will eventually earn high salaries, and are hence offered fewer education subsidies afforded less-lucrative disciplines. Consequently, medical professionals graduate with some of the highest levels of debt.

Yet, in New York State we have a doctor shortage that will soon get worse, with almost 60 percent of all doctors over 50 years old. If we desperately need more doctors, engineers and scientists, we should offer whatever incentives are necessary.

Instead, we offer a one-size-fits-all subsidy for whatever students wants to learn. We lack the courage to differentiate according to evolving society needs. We don’t want to upset individual students, or perhaps their taxpaying parents, by clearing defining where we will invest most in human capital and where we will invest less.

Given our trillion-dollar investment each year, we should define what colleges and K12 schools teach and what we need students to learn. Have we not abdicated our responsibility by neglecting our economy’s stake in education? Is education so baffling that we must throw up our hands and trust every stakeholder but the taxpayer to determine what is best? If we abdicate our responsibility, education will indulge what is best for every stakeholder but the taxpayer.

We have an opportunity to get involved, at least at the local level. Vision2Action is sponsoring a live public forum on education at 8 p.m. on Thursday at the Mountain Lake PBS studio. Let’s hear your voice in defining education in the collective best interest of us all.

Colin Read is a contributor to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh.



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