ATLANTA — Atlanta. -- Of all America's social programs, no single one has had the sweeping success of free, universal and compulsory education. Public education is what separates the industrialized world from its downtrodden neighbors. Yet America seems willing to lose even this basic advantage.
Generations of immigrants have risen to a comfortable middle-class existence through the boost received from free elementary and secondary education. Yet, we now forget the origins of our ancestors and take the advantages of universal public education for granted.
Oh, Americans talk a good game. George Bush promised during his campaign to become the ''education president.'' Corporate executives speak of their support for public education.
But the president's recent education initiative holds little but hot air. And the Harvard economist Robert Reich points out that because American businesses so often insist on tax breaks to remain in a community, many of them end up taking far more funds from public education than they ever contribute.
There was a time when Americans understood what public education did for them and what they must do to support it. When the Soviet Union beat the United States into space with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, Washington responded with a massive infusion of dollars into science and mathematics education.
The funds were not limited to colleges and universities but were also poured into high schools. And the aid for science and math spurred increased support for liberal arts. The result? America put a man on the moon.
The War on Poverty of the 1960s brought the recognition of a simple truth: The educational benefits that had lifted so many Americans into the middle class could be enhanced to also lift those who had been left behind, especially ethnic minorities. Head Start was enthusiastically introduced as just that, a leg up for those youngsters who were not fortunate enough to get a head start at home.
The 1960s are gone and so is much of our idealism. We no longer see the broad opportunities inherent in a strong system of universal public education, even though we need it as much as ever to face the 21st century.
The cost of fully funding Head Start is $7.66 billion annually. While Mr. Bush's budget suggests the nation cannot afford that, the Air Force just awarded a $95 billion contract to build an Advanced Tactical Fighter plane. Instead of giving education the funds it needs to face today's daunting tasks, we complain of its deficiencies.
Is our system of public schools really so bad? No, it isn't. The fact of the matter is we're asking the public schools to do more than they've ever been asked to do before. Teachers are expected to educate, inspire, counsel and discipline youngsters with a dizzying array of emotional and social problems. Moreover, educational demands are higher: To compete in a technological age, students must know more than they were required to know in the 1940s.
We could, of course, teach them the things they need to know and give them the counselors they need to cope with their fractured families and overwhelming peer pressure. A country that can build a $100-million-a-copy stealth fighter jet can certainly build a resourceful, topnotch system of public education. But will we?
Cynthia Tucker is associate editor of The Atlanta Constitution's editorial pages.