[Reprinted from my column today in the Puerto Rico Daily Sun.]
I’m all for long term investments in education. I am however concerned with the potential loss of this important and timely opportunity.
Take for example the case of E-Rate, an ambitious effort designed to help poor schools connect to the Internet. This program has distributed billions of dollars to schools and libraries that serve low-income populations. In its early years, the amount of money involved was fertile ground for all kinds of trouble. In El Paso, the school district paid IBM 35 million to build a network that the New York Times describes as “powerful enough to serve a small city”; in Florida, a 1 million dollar network was created to serve the needs of a 650 pupil elementary school; in San Francisco, a contractor was found guilty of rigging bids and bribing officials; and in Puerto Rico, after an investment of 100 million to hook 1500 schools to the internet, only a handful were online – partly because the schools had no computers to hook to the new networks.
In spite of massive expenditures that promised to leave “no child behind”, the United States in 2006 was one of only three (out of 34) OECD countries where younger workers were less college-educated that older ones. Hundreds of Puerto Rican schools are in “Improvement Plan” (an euphemism for “academically troubled”). The effectiveness of big investments in the improvement of education will depend on careful management of funds that target well-known and well-researched problems. Good data and best practices abound. Let’s use them.
In times of crisis, a solid government investment in the economy makes sense-if the government doesn’t, who will? FDR applied this notion with great success during the Great Depression. But these investments need to be watched after carefully, and to include a plan that measures results and holds contractors accountable to the citizenry. We want this investment in education to be truly long-term – to focus on what is good for the children, conceived of as future adults that will have better jobs (and thus contribute to a better economy) as a result of our actions today. We do not want this particular portion of Obama’s stimulus package to end up in CEO’s pockets, like some of the recent bailout funds did, or to create short term jobs and feed ghost companies, as happened with E-Rate and other initiatives. As the package gains momentum in Congress, and people in Puerto Rico and the US enjoy some well-deserved and sought after hope, let us keep an eye on those who may see the effort to provide for the economy’s long term health as an opportunity for their short-term gain. Our education is just too important.