July 29, 2010 10:56 pm

Education is ‘economic issue’, says Obama

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Barack Obama on Thursday said education was “the economic issue of our time”, linking America’s declining public schools with its struggles to remain competitive. Pointing out that America has been dropping steadily down the international league tables, particularly in mathematics and the sciences, Mr Obama made a coded plea for America’s teachers’ unions to comply with the controversial “Race to the Top” reforms he is pushing.

He pointed out that America now ranks 12th in the proportion of its people who graduate from college compared to first place a generation ago. “If we want success for our country, we can’t accept failure in our schools,” Mr Obama told the National Urban League in a speech. “I know some argue that during a recession, we should focus solely on economic issues. But education is an economic issue – if not the economic issue of our time.”

The president’s address comes amid a growing restlessness among ordinary Americans, who tell pollsters they fear the recovery from the recession will fail to create the high-paying jobs to which people were accustomed in earlier decades. Mr Obama’s economic advisers concede it will take years to build “new foundations” for the American middle class who were suffering their own “personal recessions” – in terms of stagnant or declining incomes – way before the 2008 financial meltdown.

Mr Obama’s structural reforms in education, where he is pushing schools to make teachers more accountable; in healthcare which, although passed in March, will take several years to unfold; and energy, where the Democrats recently abandoned efforts to pass a carbon trading scheme, are presented as the building blocks of the new American economy. But officials concede they will take time to be felt on the ground.

“The fact is that a lot of people in the middle class are really hurting, and frankly they were hurting before we got here,” Jared Bernstein, director of Mr Obama’s Middle Class Task Force, told the Financial Times in its View from DC video series. “When you build a foundation, especially in the middle of the maelstrom that we walked into, you’re not necessarily going to see the building in place 18, 19 months later. These problems took years to evolve and they’re going to take a good while to solve.”

Mr Bernstein said that tackling the long-term stagnation of incomes that has afflicted the bulk of America’s middle class in the last generation, which the Weekend FT focuses on in Saturday’s cover story “The Dream That Died: the crisis of middle-class America”, had been made much harder by the deep recession. US jobless rates are expected to remain at or near double-digit levels well into 2011 – a far longer period of recovery than in typical downturns.

“You never want to say ‘be patient’ to someone who is in that situation,” said Mr Bernstein. “What I would say is, think where this economy was a year ago. We were haemorrhaging employment at an [unprecedented rate] . . . A year and a half later we are back from the cliff and we’re starting to plant that foundation to create middle class opportunities for non-tradeable good jobs here in America. I would ask that [typical middle class family] to stay tuned and give us a chance.”

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