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Oh, No: Now We Need Obamacare for Education

Rick Newman
The Exchange
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, right, visits a math classroom at Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn borough of New York, Friday, Oct. 25, 2013, to highlight the importance of education in providing skills for American workers in a global economy. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The latest news on U.S. educational attainment is depressing enough, since American kids are falling even further behind their counterparts in other countries. The implications may be more troubling still, because we clearly need an Obamacare-style effort to fix a broken education system.

Before you shout “hell, no!” consider the basic problem. The U.S. education system is similar to the U.S. healthcare system: At the top, it’s terrific, because wealthy people can afford to live in pricey ZIP codes with premier schools, or even send their kids to top-shelf private institutions. Where resources are more scarce, quality deteriorates sharply. For people at the bottom, quality is so poor it’s almost as if they don’t have access to the system at all.

Americans don’t get their money’s worth in either sector. Per-capita spending on healthcare in the United States is more than twice the average in the developed world, yet life expectancy, infant mortality rates, obesity rates and many other health indicators are considerably worse than average.

A bad ROI

The data aren’t quite as lopsided with education, but America still spends a lot more than other countries on schooling, with worse results. The latest data from the so-called PISA tests, which measure the proficiency of 15-year-olds in 65 national and regional education systems around the world, show the declining performance of already-mediocre U.S. students from 2009 to 2012. American 15-year-olds scored below average on math and science, while achieving average scores in reading. Woot woot. Students from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Korea generally topped the lists.

Affluent Americans may wonder what all the fuss is about, because their kids are doing fine — just as their families tend to have access to high-quality healthcare. But the United States has developed a kind of aristocracy when it comes to vital resources such as education and healthcare, which in principle ought to be available at a minimum acceptable level to everybody — but aren’t.

This is why Obamacare happened in the first place. Inequality in the healthcare system worsened for decades, as costs skyrocketed, more people lost insurance coverage and good care became something only privileged people could afford. The number of uninsured Americans peaked in 2010 — the same year the Affordable Care Act became law — at 50 million, or 16.3% of the population.

The ACA is obviously a cumbersome piece of legislation that got off to a clumsy start when it went into effect earlier this year. But no matter how unpopular Obamacare might be, it was a response to a legitimate problem you might think a wealthy nation shouldn’t have: a large portion of the population, including many working people, who can’t afford basic healthcare.

The dimensions of the problem with education are quite similar. But it probably goes without saying that there will be no Obamacare-style prescription (even a flawed one, as Obamacare is) for an education system that’s failing a significant portion of America’s kids. With Democrats and Republicans in a state of warfare, President Obama would have trouble persuading Congress to pass a smiley-face bill at this point. Even if one party controlled both the White House and Congress, as Democrats did in 2010 when Obamacare passed, Americans have become so skeptical of government it seems unlikely they’d support anything like Obamacare anytime soon, barring an urgent crisis.

The shame of flubbed programs like Obamacare is that some problems are so entrenched it really does take a concerted national effort to solve them, because the private sector lacks the tools or inclination to do it, and states and municipalities can only make piecemeal progress. There’s no guarantee even a shrewd, well-executed federal plan could turn around the nation’s failing schools. But Obama’s idea for nationwide funding of early childhood education — backed by many education experts —  is a possible start.

If it doesn’t have Obama’s name on it, maybe it will be possible some day.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman .