So the question becomes: If we’re going to make those investments, how do we pay for it? Now, the income of folks at the top has gone up exponentially over the last couple of decades, whereas the incomes and wages of the middle class have flat-lined over the last 15 years. So this young lady’s mom, who’s been working in food services, she doesn’t have a lot of room to spare. Those of us who have been fortunate, we do. And we’re not talking about going to punitive rates that would somehow inhibit you from wanting to be part of a startup or work hard to be successful. We’re talking about going back to the rates that existed as recently as in the ‘90s, when, as I recall, Silicon Valley was doing pretty good, and well-to-do people were going pretty well. And it turns out, in fact, during that period, the rich got richer. The middle class expanded. People rose out of poverty, because everybody was doing well.
So this is not an issue of do we somehow try to punish those who have done well. That’s the last thing we want to do. It’s a question of how can we afford to continue to make the investments that are going to propel American forward.
If we don’t improve our education system, for example, we will all fall behind. We will all fall behind. That’s just — that’s a fact. And the truth is, is that on every indicator — from college graduation rates to math and science scores — we are slipping behind other developed countries. And that’s going to have an impact in terms of, if you’re a startup, are you going to be able to find enough engineers? It’s going to have an impact in terms of, is the infrastructure here good enough that you can move products to market? It’s going to have an impact on your ability to recruit top talent from around the world. And so we all have an investment in improving our education system.
Now, money is not going to solve the entire problem. That’s why we’ve initiated reforms like Race to the Top that says we’re going to have higher standards for everybody. We’re going to not just have kids taught to the test, but we’re going to make sure that we empower teachers, but we’re also going to hold them accountable, and improve how we train our principals and our teachers. So we’re willing to make a whole bunch of reforms, but, at some point, money makes a difference. If we don’t have enough science teachers in the classroom, we’re going to have problems. Somebody has got to pay for it.
And, right now, we’ve got the lowest tax rates we’ve had since the 1950s. And some of the Republican proposals would take it back — as a percentage of GDP — back to where we were back in the 1920s. You can’t have a modern industrial economy like that.
So I appreciate your sentiment. I appreciate the fact that you recognize we’re in this thing together. We’re not on our own. And those of us who’ve been successful, we’ve always got to remember that.
Q I know a lot of people in that same situation, and every one of them has said that they would support an increase in their taxes — so, please. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we’re going to get to work. Thank you.
MR. WEINER: Thank you. Thank you for your question.
Next question was submitted to the Linkedin group — it actually comes from a Linkedin employee named Theresa Sullivan. It’s a two-part question.
First, do you think our public education system and our unemployment rates are related? And second, what, if any, overhaul in education is necessary to get Americans ready for the jobs of tomorrow, rather than the jobs of 20 years ago?
THE PRESIDENT: There is no doubt that there is a connection, long term, between our economic success, our productivity, and our education system. That’s indisputable. When we were at our peak in terms of growth, back in the ’60s and the ’70s, in large part it was because we were doing a better job of training our workforce than anybody else in the world.
Now the rest of the world has caught up — or is catching up. They’re hungry. And as I said before, we are slipping behind a lot of developed countries. So our proportion of college graduates has not gone up, while everybody else’s has gone up. Our proportion of high school graduates has not gone up, while everybody else’s has gone up. And if you’ve got a billion Chinese and Indians and Eastern Europeans, all who are entering into a labor force and are becoming more skilled, and we are just sitting on the status quo, we’re going to have problems.
Now, what can we do? This is a decade-long project; it’s not a one-year project. And we’ve been pushing since we came into office to look at the evidence, to base reforms on what actually works. The single-most important ingredient in improving our schools is making sure we’ve got great teachers in front of the — in front of every classroom.
And so what we’ve said is let’s make sure that we’ve hired enough teachers; let’s train them effectively; lets pay them a good wage; let’s make sure that we’re putting a special emphasis on recruiting more math and science teachers — STEM education is an area where we’ve fallen significantly behind. Let’s make sure they’re accountable, but lets also give them flexibility in the classroom so that they don’t have to do a cookie-cutter, teach-to-the-test approach that squashes their creativity and prevents them from engaging students. But at the end of the year, let’s make sure that they’re doing a good job. And if there are teachers out there who are not doing a good job, let’s work to retrain them. And if they’re not able to be retrained, then we should probably find them a different line of work. We’ve got to have top-flight principals and leadership inside the schools. That makes a big difference.
We’ve also got to focus on — there are some schools that are just dropout factories where less than half of the kids end up graduating — a lot of them, the students are black and brown, but that’s also the demographic that’s growing the fastest in this country. So if we don’t fix those schools we’re going to have problems. So we’ve said to every state, you know what, focus on the lowest-performing schools and tell us what your game plan is to improve those schools’ performance.