Based on its proposed economic stimulus package, it appears the U.S. Senate considers road projects, modernization of federal buildings, Amtrak and the digital TV conversion more important than public education.

The stimulus package, currently under debate in Congress, is President Obama’s effort to help fight the recession through an injection of cash into the market in an attempt to restart this country’s failing economy.

In their dueling proposals, the House of Representatives’ version of the economic stimulus package promised approximately $79 billion to state and local governments for education, while the Senate’s package set aside a drastically lower $39 billion.

Despite significantly slashing the amount of money states would be given for education, the Senate package still managed to find $30 billion for road projects, $7 billion for federal buildings updates, $1 billion for Amtrak — which hasn’t seen a profit in over 40 years — and $650 million to fund coupons for digital TV conversions. These numbers point to a serious priority mix-up in the Senate.

We acknowledge our bias. As students at a public university, in a state that has officially run out of money, we have an inherent interest in receiving, or not receiving, as the case may be, an extra $40 billion for public education. We not only need the money, we need it immediately. The economic stimulus package is the ideal way to resolve both of those necessities.

It’s time that the government — the Senate in particular — starts paying as much attention to public education as we do.

For the first time in modern history, the U.S. is the only industrialized country where kids are less likely to earn a high school diploma than their parents, according to a report released in October by nonprofit education advocacy organization the Education Trust. Recent cuts to education under the Bush administration might have been one of the reasons for this startling and slightly sickening fact.

It is difficult to understand, then, why education seems to invariably be one of the first things placed upon the economic chopping block in tough times.

During the Great Depression, teachers’ salaries were slashed to save money and only the bare minimum of programs were maintained. Former president George W. Bush, who at the outset of his presidency claimed one of his top priorities was education, cut its budget by more than $4 billion in 2006, eliminating many of the early childhood education and literacy programs in which he had originally vowed to invest.

Now, with state and federal budgets depleted, the Senate put education back on the carving board. They hacked it, sliced it and diced it. They did this in an effort to appease those wary of the stimulus plan altogether, but making compromises when it comes to public education ultimately hurts everyone.

Each “four-year-equivalent degree” leads to decreased spending on welfare programs, Medicare, Supplemental Security Income, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, prisons, and medical care for the uninsured, according to a landmark 2007 study by Philip A. Trostel of the University of Maine.

The study also found that for every dollar the government spends on a college student, it gets at least $7.46 back.

This isn’t rocket science. Yes, the country is in an economic crisis. Yes, things need to be cut in order to get us out of this slump. Yes, $40 billion to fund education, at both state and local levels, is a lot of money.

But spending that $40 billion now, means a future return of over $280 billion.

The senators should have done their math.

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