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John Greenleaf Whittier wrote: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!'” Public policy makers bear a heavy–usually unacknowledged–burden in the “might have been” department. Suppose, for example, this state took public education seriously.

Sarah Burd-Sharps, one of the authors of The Measure of America, is giving you a way to see “what might have been” if education were better. She wrote to tell me about a new, interactive site that she and her colleagues have designed. Click on Missouri when the site map comes up, and you will see along the left edge what level of educational achievement Missourians now have. You can use the mouse to move those levels up and see how our lives would improve. From the tabs along the top, you can choose to learn how health, financial stability, education (kids’ performance in school) and community involvement would change.

As Burd-Sharps wrote:

Looking in particular at Missouri, you can see that if all adults 25 and over in the state had graduated from high school, average earnings would rise $1,000/person, 70,515 fewer people would live in poverty, 156,000 more people would vote and there would be 22,577 fewer prisoners.

Umm, you might think that sounds worth doing. Burd-Sharps agreed when I interviewed her last August, but pointed out that in some important ways, the American educational system is self defeating:

In the arena of education, Burd-Sharps bemoans first the way Americans expect their educational system to handle all the problems that children bring to school with them. If they arrive hungry or if they come from a situation that is violent or abusive, we can’t expect teachers to solve those problems. Because poorer districts face more such problems, they need more funds if they’re to make any headway in teaching those kids. Yet their funds are less because the U.S. is one of the only countries that bases its educational spending on property taxes.

Instead of trying to level the playing field for kids facing an uphill battle, too many state legislators take the attitude: Let them eat cake, educationally speaking. Consider just one of the areas where their lack of vision is costing all of us: prisons. If you click on the “Community Involvement” tab, you read:

Educational investment yields a far better return on public spending than imprisonment–and at significantly less cost. On average, in the U.S. it costs:
  • $6,000 annually for public four-year college tuition, vs.
  • $25,000 a year per inmate.

If we spent the necessary money to get most people to graduate from high school, the state would save over $564 million every year on its prison system. Maybe it would take that much money to get everybody to graduate. Maybe we’d only break even financially. Maybe the only reward we would reap would be feeling less threatened by crime and knowing that lives which might have been ruined are now productive–thus creating a state, by the way, that would lure companies with well paying jobs to offer.

But the rewards for educational spending would be years down the road, long after the legislators who voted for it were termed out. If the Republicans who control our legislature had that much vision, they wouldn’t be Republicans. All we can do is work to elect Democrats and hound them to improve educational spending, knowing that unless we keep up, other states and other countries with wiser policies will reap the rewards of better education.