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As students begin the school year, we must act to protect their opportunities

Sen. Sandy Pappas

The last few weeks before the start of a new school year was always a hectic time for our family. There was the usual trip to the State Fair, the annual Labor Day picnic on Harriet Island, and the multiple shopping trips for school clothes and school supplies. Every fall we reminded our three growing daughters that if they study hard, get good grades, and go to college, they will have a wealth of opportunities.

But many young Americans of today face more limited opportunities – with high rates of unemployment, underemployment and debt because of the lingering effects of the Great Recession.

The unemployment rate for recent high-school graduates opting to enter into the work force, rather than enroll in college, was 33.6 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The average debt for students graduating from college last year was $23,300, which was made worse when only 53 percent of recent college graduates were able to find full-time work.

Looming possibility of cuts

Low salaries and unemployment persist, but a college education will improve those prospects for our youth. Yet in a very short few months, we face the looming possibility of severe cuts to education funding. Under the Budget Control Act passed last year by Congress, across-the-board spending cuts are slated to fall on both the Pentagon and all other programs, including education, if congressional leaders are unable to find a way to reduce the deficit by January 2013.

While education programs have faced cuts at the federal and state level over the last decade, Pentagon spending has grown nearly unchecked since 1998. Year after year, more than 55 percent of our discretionary budget – the budget Congress debates and passes each year – goes to the Pentagon. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we spend 41 percent of total military spending of the entire world – higher than the combined military budgets of the next 15 largest military spenders. It stands to reason that if we’re spending these huge amounts on the Pentagon, other parts of the budget will have to be substantially reduced.

A grimmer picture if Pentagon is exempted

If the automatic cuts are not prevented, nationwide, 1.8 million disadvantaged students could lose funding and thousands of teachers and aides would lose their jobs. The picture is grimmer if the Pentagon is exempt from cuts, with 34,000 teachers losing their jobs and 217,000 children losing Head Start funding. Some members of Congress, aided by the immensely powerful and profitable defense industry, are raising alarms about the mandated cuts to the Pentagon. They would like to find any way to protect their profits, even it means making much deeper cuts to all other programs and investments.

We cannot expect to maintain a strong nation if our young people are not well-educated, and their future prospects are weakened. The Independent Task Force on U.S. Education Reform and National Security sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations recently warned, “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”

To Minnesota’s congressional delegation: We are counting on you to prevent these devastating cuts and to make sure our students will still see a wide world of opportunity.

State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St Paul, is vice president of the Women Legislators’ Lobby, a program of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND).

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