On the whole, however, there can be little denying that Obama sees education as the public good that it is. This is why he appropriated $100 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to education. At a time when state budgets were cratering, Obama saved 300,000 education jobs and prevented more than 160,000 teachers from being laid off or fired—something that would have begun the wholesale dismantling of public education in the United States.

This is why he took the bold step to remove the “middleman” in the college loan process by making the government the prime lender for student loans. With the savings from the sweetheart deal for banks, Obama doubled funding for Pell Grants to $17 billion and raised the amount of each award by more than 10 percent. More than 9 million college students took advantage of Pell Grants in 2011—a 50-percent increase from 2008.

The unprecedented levels of investment Obama has made in education through these policies and others (including tax credits for families to send their children to college and competitive grants for community colleges) undergirds his administration’s view that education is a public good for all to share—not because it is based on some idea of bleeding heart “charity” or, as the Tea Party likes to remind us, that he is a “socialist.”

It is in keeping with the most fundamental of all beliefs that Americans hold dear: The way to upward mobility is through self-improvement, and the way to self-improvement is through education.

In the name of “liberty,” Republicans believe that government should have little or no role to play in the choices we make; instead, they say these should be shaped by the laws of the market. That might work when someone is buying a Cadillac, a dressage horse, or hiring landscapers for one of his houses. It doesn’t work in education. Education is not a product that is transmitted from private buyer to seller on the open market.

Yes, it is a form of “investment”—but it is a different form of investment from the commodities Mitt Romney is used to buying and selling. More than anything, education is a process that has a societal investment at its core. The teacher invests her time in her talents, and she then invests her time in her students, who then invest their time in their self-development and self-improvement. Parents and other family members invest their time in that process as well.

As a taxpayer, I invest in that entire process with my tax dollars for people I will never meet. The community reaps the rewards of those investments by having a well-educated, autonomous, productive citizenry—which is precisely what makes education a public good.


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