Well, it’s a new year all right, but how happy it turns out to be–for education and America–depends a lot on how well you do your job and how successful you are in helping lawmakers and others understand what’s at stake.

Our field faces an array of challenges as we enter 2006–some are regrettably familiar, such as funding cuts by Congress for key programs, and some are unprecedented, such as a decline in foreign students entering engineering and computer science programs in our major universities. The funding crunch this year is exacerbated by the war in Iraq and the aftermath of the worst hurricane season in memory. Our future depends on the education of our citizenry, which is exactly where you come in. If we are to prove superior to the challenges of 2006, we need to hone the arguments in favor of education and cultivate effective allies.

President Bush, for one, clearly understands the importance of education.

“In the space of two-and-a-half years,” he reported on Dec. 7 in a speech at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C, “we have helped . . . conduct nearly 3,000 renovation projects at schools, train more than 30,000 teachers, distribute more than 8 million textbooks . . . .”

All right. It’s true. He was talking about U.S. programs in Iraq, but that should not obscure the point: Education is essential to the well-being of any nation.

Finding the funds necessary to do the job, of course, can be a tricky business even in a wealthy nation. To start with, you have to be sure tax money is spent wisely. When federal funding is involved, that hasn’t always been the case.

At a recent education conference hosted by the Software & Information Industry Association, for instance, keynote speaker Gene Hickok, former big shot at the U.S. Department of Education, predicted major scandals involving “billions of dollars.”

No, he wasn’t talking about the dealings of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff or even the $9 billion in reconstruction funds that have simply gone missing in Iraq. Hickok was talking about scandals brewing at some of the nation’s largest school systems, he said. But he wouldn’t name them or even indicate what it was these unidentified districts were alleged to have done wrong. Just wait and see, he said.

While we’re waiting, let’s begin 2006 on a somewhat brighter note. With certain glaring exceptions–think Mississippi and Louisiana–state budgets are generally on the rebound. “Most states from California to Maine are experiencing a marked turnaround in their fiscal fortunes,” reported the New York Times, “with billions of dollars more in tax receipts than had been projected pouring into coffers around the country.”

Good thing, too; because given what’s going on in Congress, educators this year will do well indeed to look homeward for their angels. The war, tax cuts, and the resulting federal deficits could put a painful crimp in education allocations. So now’s the time for all good educators to redouble their efforts to encourage state and local lawmakers to provide adequate funding for education.

As a school leader, you’re likely to be called on to speak up for education. Don’t even think about addressing the next Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce meeting without reviewing the proceedings of the Campaign For Educational Equity’s fall seminar “The Social Costs of Inadequate Education.” You’ll find some of the most fiscally conservative reasons to support adequate education I’ve seen in years.

Just check out the arguments at the Teachers College, Columbia, web site: http://www.tc.columbia.edu/centers/EquityCampaign/symposium/resource.asp

Here are some highlights:

  • A high school dropout earns about $260,000 less over a lifetime than a high school graduate and pays about $60,000 less in taxes.
  • Increasing the high school completion rate by just 1 percent for all men ages 20-60 would save the U.S. up to $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime.
  • Annual losses exceed $50 billion in federal and state income taxes for all 23 million U.S. high school dropouts ages 18-67.
  • America loses $192 billion -1.6 percent of its Gross Domestic Product – in combined income and tax revenue losses with each cohort of 18-year-olds who never complete high school. Increasing the educational attainment of that cohort by one year would recoup nearly half those losses.
  • America could save between $7.9 billion and $10.8 billion annually by improving educational attainment among all recipients of government assistance.

Add it all up, and you get nearly $200 billion. In other words, ensuring adequate education in the United States would just about offset the costs of the war in Iraq. Now what–on Earth–could make for a happier New Year?