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The U.S. education system is what made this country prosperous in the twentieth century -- but no longer. Perhaps no issue is more urgent than this, yet for all the talk of teacher’s unions and testing, real education programs, ideas that will matter, are nonexistent this election season.

School Bus

Flickr/ Joe Shlabotnik

During the last century, the best education system in the world allowed this country to grow briskly and lift standards of living. Now, from kindergarten to college, public education is chronically underfunded. Scarcely 2% of the federal budget goes to education, and dwindling public investment means students pay higher tuitions and fall ever deeperinto debt. Total student debt surpassed $1 trillion this year and it’s growing by the month, with the average debt burden for a college graduate over $24,000. That will leave many of those graduates on a treadmill of loan repayment for most or all of their adult lives.

Renewed public investment in education -- from pre-kindergarten to university -- would pay handsome dividends for generations.  But you aren’t going to hear either candidate or their vice-presidential running mates proposing the equivalent of a GI Bill for the rest of us or even significant new investment in education.  And yet that’s a recipe for, and a guarantee of, American decline.

Ironically, those in Washington arguing for urgent deficit reduction claim that we’ve got to do it “for the kids,” that we must stop saddling our grandchildren with mountains of federal debt. But if your child turns 18 and finds her government running a balanced budget in an America that's hollowed out, an America where she has no chance of paying for a college education, will she celebrate? You don’t need an economist to answer that one.

Mattea Kramer is senior research analyst at National Priorities Project. She is lead author of the new book A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget.

This originally appeared as part of a post on TomDispatch.com

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