Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara Superintendant of Schools

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote a column recently reminding readers that education was always considered the escalator to a better life for all of us.

No more.

He underscored the long-term destructiveness of undermining public education, pointing out that our country supports schools in Afghanistan “because we know that education is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to build a country.” He said we are turning a blind eye to that fact at home, and he’s right. School budgets are being decimated, teachers laid off in massive numbers, and educational programs laid waste.

School years have been reduced in many places from the standard 180 days per year to 167 or even fewer. Teaching staffs have been reduced by more than 10 percent across the land. Athletic teams have been pared, school newspapers discontinued, business and music classes eliminated. Class size is skyrocketing.

Writing of his own high school in Oregon, Kristof said: “This school was where I embraced sports, became a journalist, encountered intellectual worlds, and got in trouble. These days, the 430 students still have opportunities to get into trouble, but the rest is harder.

“American pre-eminence in mass education has eroded since the 1970s,” he wrote, “and now a number of countries have leapfrogged us in high school graduation rates, in student performance, in college attendance.”

And here’s his main point:  “If you look for the classic American faith in the value of broad education to spread opportunity, you can still find it — in Asia,” wrote Kristof.

As he stated, data from throughout the world has proven that the best anti-poverty program, with the best record, is education. Yet people in our country continue to act as though education isn’t really for “other people’s children,” or that some young people don’t really need the escalator to a better life and wouldn’t take advantage of it if offered. “I can’t think of any view that is more un-American,” he concluded.

In the name of cutting, cutting, cutting, it’s time to ask what kind of a country, and what kind of local communities are we willing to settle for? When the only focus is what to eliminate it’s hard to believe that striving for excellence is on the radar. These are dangerous policies with consequences we can’t even begin to fathom. What has happened to our core values? When did the American dream alter so dramatically?

I don’t believe it has. I believe the American public still believes in equal opportunity and the value of a public education system open to all, striving for excellence, and continuing to be an escalator to a better life.

We hear some leaders talking about the need for our government to be “lean and mean.” Is that really what we want? It’s only a turn of phrase, but it reflects the literal truth of the policy. To be as lean as what is being sought by some, we need to cut the safety net for the least among us, and the services, like public education, that define us as a nation.

If we don’t want a government that is “mean,” and basically un-American, we need to strongly support those who agree with that view and insist their actions reflect that support. It’s the only way forward.