Forty years ago, one man took a small step that inspired a country. The Apollo 11 mission to the moon was a great moment for America as viewers across the nation, in unison, watched one of our own step foot on an otherworldly body for the first time. America’s potential was limitless.
I still remember the journey of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. I had just returned from my own life-changing adventure: a two-year stint serving Ethiopia in the Peace Corps. I served in a country that could not afford to feed its population, let alone educate them, and this loss of human potential still slows progress there today. A quality education is important not just for the betterment of individuals but also for society as a whole. In my decades of public service, I have worked tirelessly to ensure that we provide our children with the highest quality education, because I know that our economic growth depends on their intellectual growth.
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The success of Apollo 11 would never have happened without the work of America’s best and brightest scientists. They were the product of our country’s commitment to STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math education. America led the globe in science education, but due to funding cuts and increased international competition, we’re falling behind the curve.
California is near the bottom in per pupil spending, and it shows. We have great teachers, but they need the resources to do their job and small enough class sizes to give individual attention to all our students. In California’s K-12 education system, 20 percent of high school students drop out of high school. In inner city and rural communities, the dropout rate is higher. This is unacceptable.
California’s education woes are not reserved for the K-12 level. Our community colleges – the entry-point for career and technical education – are seriously stressed and underfunded. The California State University and University of California systems – schools responsible for the cutting edge research that can create entirely new sectors of our economy – are losing state support and on the road of slow starvation. Twenty years ago, we funded the University of California at $15,000 per student. Last year, we funded the University of California at less than $10,000 per student in constant dollars. Adjusted for inflation, student fees have more than doubled at UC and CSU since 1990 and more than tripled at the community colleges.
We know that if an additional two percent of Californians had associate’s degrees and another one percent earned bachelor’s degrees, California’s economy would grow by $20 billion, our state and local tax revenues would increase by $1.2 billion a year, and 174,000 new jobs would be created. And yet, for the first time in its history, the CSU system will accept no new students for its spring semester. Over 35,000 qualified students will be turned away. Those are our future engineers, our future technicians, our future teachers, our future NASA scientists.
At last week’s UC regents meetings in San Francisco, I heard from students, parents, faculty, and administrators about the strains being put on UC. At this week’s CSU trustees meeting, I will hear more disheartening news about the impact of budget cuts on the largest public university system in the country.
In all my decades of public service, I’ve never seen a situation so dire. That is why I support an oil severance tax to help stopgap some of the worst cuts to higher education. We could generate more than one billion dollars a year for higher education and put our systems of higher learning in a more stable footing. The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California projects that if we do not act soon to graduate more students, by 2025 California will have one million college graduates fewer than required to keep pace with economic growth. If we don’t defend education today, who will lead our businesses of tomorrow?
The Apollo 11 mission united our country. Our collective ingenuity, daring, and know-how allowed us to conquer the impossible and place a man on the moon. If we can win the space race, we can certainly win the education race. It’s time we made another giant leap for mankind.
John Garamendi is the Lieutenant Governor of California, a University of California regent, a California State University trustee, and chair of the California Commission for Economic Development. He is a candidate in California's 10th Congressional District. For more information, please visit: http://www.garamendi.org or follow John on Facebook and Twitter.