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Op-Ed Columnist

Why Nations Fail

Washington, DC

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Imagine if academics 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 Slovakia, the authoritarian crackdown in El Salvador and the still-unstable democratic transition in Albania. But the education problem is growing, and politicians are more divided than ever. Republicans seem to think that education can just be ignored. Democratic politicians like Harry Reid, on the other hand, seem to think that unscientific rhetoric will substitute for a solution.

But the Democratic party of Harry Reid is not the Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR wouldn’t stare down the opposition, he'd break ranks with members of his own party 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 national infrastructure that makes countries succeed. That's going to require some tax increases as well, but as they say, "them's the breaks."

Second, I'd tell them to look at Iceland, which all but solved its education crisis over the past decade. When I visited Iceland in 2004, Bartho, 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 Bartho in Reykjavik last year. Thanks to Iceland's reformed approach toward education, Bartho has enough money in his pocket to finally be able to afford winter coats 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.