Thirty years ago, it was “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. “The educational foundations of our society,” the widely read report proclaimed, “are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

“Each generation of Americans,” it continued, “has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach those of their parents.” A dire prediction.

Today it is U.S. Education Reform and National Security, a report by the Council on Foreign Relations. “Human capital,” the authors claim, “will determine power in the current century, and the failure to produce that capital will undermine America’s security.”

“Large, undereducated swaths of the population,” it continues, “damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy.” Evidence of a prediction come true?

Both reports follow the same, now familiar, format — shocking, headline-grabbing assertions of our educational failures, a raft of dismal statistics documenting both our ignorance and our relative decline compared to other countries, followed by a series of eminently sensible proposals for reform tied in a neat bow of rock-solid figures showing the tremendous return we will get if we just make the educational investments spelled out in the reports.

How right, we think, while wondering why this time will be different.

This time won’t be different because, as an attorney/landlord once shouted in the midst of an intense disagreement over a rental property, “Logic and ethics have nothing to do with this!” The nature of public education in this country is a function of institutional structure, power and money. Dismal projections and rational investment analyses don’t drive educational change. But the two-by-four to the head of declining enrollment, rising per-student costs and resistance to property-tax increases just might.

Every year, Maine spends over $2 billion on elementary and secondary education. And the single most important force determining how much is spent next year is how much was spent last year. Radical change — however logical and important — is just not part of the system. In fact, it’s antithetical to the system.

And that’s precisely what is so encouraging about a third report on education reform recently released — “Investment in Young Children = Real Economic Development” — the third in a series of reports produced jointly by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation. Like its national counterparts, this report marshals all the usual arguments, all the logic and ethics — the scary statistics documenting the human waste from failing to provide all Maine children with the supportive environment needed to develop their capacities early in life, the money we pay in social assistance and corrections because of this failure and the compelling data on the return we would gain from the investment needed to provide that environment.

But unlike so many such reports, this one does not end with a simple cry to the existing bureaucracy, “You should change!” Instead it cites concrete examples of private enterprises outside the bureaucracy — currently operating child-care centers — working with public school districts to achieve the results called for in the report.

In addition, the report notes a new initiative by the Maine business community — the Maine Early Investment Group — committed to raising millions of dollars to support early childhood education programs willing to meet the high standards set in its investment criteria. In short, this report moves beyond being merely a compelling definition of the problem. It is an inspiring example of the first steps along the path of solution. In this respect alone, it deserves to be read carefully by all parents and other concerned citizens in the state.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

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