On March 9, 1832, future President Abraham Lincoln, in his first public political address said, "Upon the subject of education … I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in. That everyone may receive at least a moderate education … appears to be an object of vital importance."
He continued, "For my part, I desire to see the time when education — and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry — shall become much more general than at present."
It wasn't until May 17, 1954, when a landmark Supreme Court decision — Brown vs. Board of Education — outlawing racial segregation in American public schools, that Lincoln's desires finally came to fruition, providing a framework where further dialogue about educational disparities began in earnest. Even today, Portland Public Schools and our local community are enmeshed in heated debates concerning the plight of Jefferson High School and who is going to assume the tax burden of educating our youth.
But a more urgent conversation needs to happen that speaks to the heart and soul of our nation, which far outweighs even the war on terror.
Abraham Flexner, a famous educator in the 1930s said, "No nation is rich enough to pay for both war and education." Therefore, the more pressing debate isn't just the educational disparities within our communities, but our competitiveness in a world economy. Our consumer-driven society has fostered an environment where children are falling dangerously behind in mathematics and sciences in comparison to North and South Asian cultures.
So, are unintended consequences being considered when we place more emphasis on national security and wealth than on educating our youth, regardless of ethnic or racial origin?
The crack cocaine epidemic during the early 1980s reveals a certain irony in the current debate about education. Crack affected a largely African American population, and mandatory jail sentencing was its remedy. Subsequently, when methamphetamine later hit the scene, infiltrating a largely White and middle-class community, the debate switched again around the importance of mandatory sentencing.
Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of mandatory jail sentencing for drugs has been a huge and costly burden to an already frazzled child welfare, judicial and penitentiary system, and it has left grandchildren to be reared by grandparents dazed by an unscripted change in their retirement years. Our drug laws have been a dismal display of public policy.
Let's be perfectly honest here about what's at stake concerning educating our youth, because an immediate 180-degree turn has to happen. In fact, building wealth and retirements won't mean anything to a generation unable to compete in the world. Tax revenues alone — gathered from an uneducated and unproductive workforce — cannot sustain the weight of building enough jails and a welfare system able to accommodate this shortsightedness.
Like the drug epidemic, we already have clear examples about what happens within communities when we neglect or dismiss a rigorous and enlightened public policy. And if the educational disparities within the African American community are any indications of a larger trend — where there is overrepresentation in incarceration, drug addictions and general un-productivity — then the same plight for all American children is just around the corner.
Is this the outcome we want for our society as Americans? All one has to do is turn on the nightly news and see the devastation of methamphetamine in our communities and the unintended consequences as a society concerning this epidemic.
President Lincoln foresaw education as a means of productivity and enlightenment — and, I would say, sustaining our status as a superpower. Therefore, the question of providing equal opportunity and funding for our education systems to minimize disparities isn't just a matter of doing the right thing, but is crucial to our national security. A moderate education is the least we can expect for our children, but to sustain the longevity of our community and nation, diverting costly resources from warfare and jail systems is good public policy.
Educating and preparing our children will better provide for our overall stability than dropping bombs and accumulating wealth. It's time to rethink long and hard about educating our youngsters.
The Rev. John Garlington is founder and pastor of Agape Fellowship Ministries in Portland.