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Givens: Education is the key to global competitiveness
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Are we destined to become a second-class nation? Perhaps we misunderstood how we became so prosperous. We had a strong start.

Historically, land has been the source of wealth. Unlike Europe, when we had economic downturns, we could open up a new territory to settlement by our poor and then benefit from the economic growth. Homesteading was an effective welfare/workfare.

Still, Western Europe beat us in education and matched us in wealth and technology until World War I. We made a fortune selling weapons to the Allies during the first parts of both world wars. Largely due to our government's investments in research, we led in world technology. During both world wars, many of the brightest minds of Europe either fled for America or were killed. Those wars left the industrial capacity of our competitors destroyed and their treasuries bankrupt.

We again face real competition. Even though 96 percent of America's top companies reported profits, they sent most of their jobs overseas. That wealth isn't trickling down here. We used to lose simple factory jobs and keep the more complex production jobs. Now those are leaving as well. Why is that?

For one, though we have some of the best colleges in the world, which only a few can attend, we are failing to educate enough of our own students. We also deport many that we do educate. Of science and engineering Ph.D's educated in the U.S., 40 percent are foreign born. Those who came on J-1 visas must return home. So we educate them in our best universities and then send them home to compete with us.

The DREAM Act would have allowed people who were brought here as children and willing to go to college to stay. If we already educated them through high school and they are willing to contribute, why deport them?

Foreign born entrepreneurs helped start one-fourth of the new engineering and technology jobs in the U.S. Of those students and entrepreneurs educated here and deported, how many jobs do you think were created for their home countries that would have been created here? America has a long and distinguished tradition of poaching the greatest minds from around the world. Why have we stopped?

Unless World War III breaks out without America becoming involved, the only way we can beat the competition is to be better. My wife told me she thinks our decline comes down to education. Our education model as it is set up obsesses over titles, degrees and multiple-choice testing but ignores actual knowledge and critical-thinking skills. She won me over.

Germany has weathered the recession very well. Its unemployment levels keep dropping and their exports have increased despite having all the factors that are supposed to slow growth. It has universal health coverage, a welfare state, strong unions and higher taxes on the wealthy. However, our government spending as a portion of gross domestic product is 45 percent while theirs is 48 percent. This should make us question the definition of socialist that is so often thrown around.

Germany's success has been attributed to its program for educating and re-education of workers. For example, a German mechanic may find his skills are no longer in demand, but if he meets school entrance requirements, he will be retrained in a skill that is in demand at minimal cost to him. This insures heavy industry a continual supply of skilled labor.

For a worker to retrain here, he or she must take out thousands in loans. Repaying those loans will reduce the power of future earnings, and take money out of the local economy at that future point.

When our elementary schools and high schools are underfunded, we completely lose out on our human resource potential. We are in a struggle for our economic survival.

Having the best education in the world is the only thing that could possibly save us. At present, instead of educating our own children, we are relying on importing foreigners to jump start new business, and doing a poor job at that.

Fixing education is difficult, but the mantra of local control isn't the answer. It's code for passing the buck. I'm a strong advocate of home schooling and private schooling. However, we must have a system for educating people when those aren't options.

Education costs have gone up because today, we educate the disabled and disadvantaged as opposed to ignoring them. Also, 40 years ago, education and nursing were the only careers available for women. This meant that half of our population had only two career choices outside of the home. We had an abundance of teachers we could underpay.

Federal money has led to mixed results. We reach more students now but instead of spending money on researched solutions demonstrated to work, such as lowering class sizes, after-school tutoring and providing teachers with more planning time, we spend money on standardized testing.

The politicians making the laws aren't teachers. They are trying to fix what they don't understand. And when the teachers' lobby asks to be a part of the process, it is called dirty words like "union" by pundits and some politicians. It's almost as if some people actually want to destroy public education just to cut taxes. In doing so they'll wreck the whole ship.

For every tax dollar spent on early childhood education, 13 future tax dollars are saved. America has 751 prisoners for every 100,000 people, while nations with comprehensive educational systems have 63 to 88 per every 100,000. At great cost, we imprison 1 percent of our adult population.

Maybe the saying is true: We can pay for schools or we can pay for prisons, but either way we'll pay.

 Brandon Given is a Hall County teacher and a frequent columnist.

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