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Op-Ed Columnist

Time for Leadership

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 Belize, the authoritarian crackdown in Namibia and the still-unstable democratic transition in Israel. 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 Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, seem to think that shrill rhetoric will substitute for a solution.

But the Republican party of Mitch McConnell is not the Republican party of Lincoln. Lincoln wouldn’t refuse to budge, he'd reach across the aisle 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.

It's good to see the talks between the president and congress getting off to a solid start, but we know there will be plenty of partisan fireworks before any deal is cut. 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, "Ain't nothing to it but to do it."

Second, I'd tell them to look at Singapore, which all but solved its education crisis over the past decade. When I visited Singapore in 2004, Mwambe, 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 Mwambe in Singapore last year. Thanks to Singapore's reformed approach toward education, Mwambe has enough money in his pocket to finally be able to afford an apartment for his kids.

That's all it takes. Don't expect to see any solutions as long as politicians insist on playing a high-stakes game of blackjack with one another. America's got to call a time-out.