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Op-Ed Columnist

Backlash to the Backlash

Washington, DC

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Imagine if grassroots activists sat down with ordinary people like you and me and ironed out some real solutions to our education crisis.

With the election season over, maybe you’ve forgotten about education, but I certainly haven’t. It would be easy to forget that the problem even exists, when our headlines are constantly splashed with the violence in Thailand, the authoritarian crackdown in Tanzania and the still-unstable democratic transition in Peru. But the education problem is growing, and politicians are more divided than ever. Democrats seem to think that education can just be ignored. Republican politicians like Marco Rubio, on the other hand, seem to think that nonsensical rhetoric will substitute for a solution.

But the Republican party of Marco Rubio is not the Republican party of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt wouldn’t just filibuster, he'd compromise because he'd understand that the fate of the country, and his own political career, depended on a lasting solution to the problem of education.

The first rule of holes is that when you're in one, stop digging. When you're in three, bring a lot of shovels. If I had fifteen minutes to pitch my idea to politicians, I'd tell them two things about education. First, there's no way around the issue unless we're prepared to spend more: and not just spend more, but spend smarter by investing in the kind of green energy that makes countries succeed. That's going to require some tax increases as well, but as they say, "When in Rome."

Second, I'd tell them to look at Norway, which all but solved its education crisis over the past decade. When I visited Norway in 2001, Kiki, the cabbie who drove me from the airport, couldn't stop telling me about how he had to take a fourth job because of the high cost of education. I caught up with Kiki in Oslo last year. Thanks to Norway's reformed approach toward education, Kiki has enough money in his pocket to finally be able to afford a playground for his kids.

That's all it takes. Don't expect to see any solutions as long as fringe bloggers insist on playing a high-stakes game of backgammon with one another. America has to become a first world country again.