At issue | May 17 column by Herald-Leader's Tom Eblen, "Pittsburgh school official says schools a threat to America"
Tom Eblen's column opens a welcomed dialogue — and a can of worms.
Because it is a straightforward account of the speech by Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, I wish to add some analysis.
First, the relations between schools and a community go beyond the economy.
Never miss a local story.
Second, it's not easy even to discern how and when schools shape a local economy.
In 1983, when the report, "A Nation at Risk," singled out American public schools as a "rising tide of mediocrity," one of its sobering messages was that the United States' educational system "was failing to meet the national need for a competitive workforce."
One recommendation was that we ought to look to Japan as a model because its excellent educational system evidently was responsible for the nation's prosperous economy.
Is Japan's subsequent economic slide due to some recent demise of its once strong school system?
I doubt it.
Pittsburgh Superintendent Mark Roosevelt emphasizes that he isn't a trained educator — making special note that his background is in public policy.
I have some worries about his expertise. He cites the fact that "the percentage of Americans who are college graduates has remained at about 30 percent for the past half-century, while it has doubled and tripled in some other countries."
This statement is flawed because he is using percentages without their accompanying ordinal numbers.
Assume another nation has increased its percentage of college graduates from 10 to 30 — quite an increase. But so what? Without context, it does not lead to good discussion.
Furthermore, the fact that "more than half the engineering students at U.S. universities are now foreigners" is another confused claim.
Is that necessarily bad?
It could mean that academic programs at universities in the United States are highly regarded worldwide and are a magnet for talent from many sources.
I would be more worried if excellent engineering students from other nations were avoiding American university degree programs.
I do not know whether Pittsburgh's public schools are "good" or "bad." Regardless of their rating, I think the current problems of the American economy probably are more due to bad behavior by some investment firms, banks and businesses than they are attributable to the public school system.
Indeed, if I were to focus on one potential weak spot in the American educational system it would be in examining the advanced professional education of those bankers and corporate executives who made bad and often unethical decisions in steering the economy.
So, if we are going to audit the Pittsburgh elementary schools, let's also look at MBA programs and law schools — especially their attention to such dimensions as wisdom or ethics in decision-making.
Amid all the speeches and presentations the Pittsburgh hosts made to the Lexington delegation, I find one important recent episode missing in Eblen's column — namely, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's bold proposal for the city government to impose a tuition tax on students who enroll at the many colleges and universities in the city.
This includes such excellent institutions as the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University.
The mayor's logic is that Pittsburgh as the "Transformation City" needs revenues from its higher-education institutions and their related activities and land holdings.
Consider the policy and planning implications for Lexington.
The University of Kentucky is the largest employer and landowner in Fayette County — yet is tax exempt.
Add in Transylvania University, Bluegrass Community and Technical College and other colleges, and one has a formidable source of new revenues for a struggling local government.
If this proposal is a good idea for Pittsburgh, why not also discuss it here in our hometown of Lexington?