YAMHILL, Ore.--THE United States supports schools in Afghanistan because we know that education is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to build a country.
Alas, we've forgotten that lesson at home. All across America, school budgets are being cut, teachers laid off and education programs dismantled.
My beloved old high school in Yamhill, Ore. -- a plain brick building that was my rocket ship -- is emblematic of that trend. There were only 167 school days in the last school year here (180 was typical until the recession hit), and the staff has been reduced by 9 percent over five years.
This school was where I embraced sports, became a journalist, encountered intellectual worlds, and got in trouble. These days, the 430 students still have opportunities to get into trouble, but the rest is harder.
For the next school year, freshman and junior varsity sports teams are at risk, and all students will have to pay $125 to participate on a team. The school newspaper, which once doubled as a biweekly newspaper for the entire town, has been terminated.
Business classes are gone. A music teacher has been eliminated. Class size is growing, with more than 40 students in freshman Spanish. ''It's like a long, slow bleed, watching things disappear,'' says the school district's business manager, Michelle Morrison.
The school still has good teachers, but is that sustainable with a starting salary of $33,676?
In a rural, blue-collar area like Yamhill, traditionally dependent on farming and forestry, school has always been an escalator to opportunity. One of my buddies was Loren, a house painter's son, who graduated as salutatorian and became a lawyer. That's the role that education historically has played -- but the escalator is now breaking down.
''Every year we say: 'What can we cut? What can we reduce?' '' said Steve Chiovaro, superintendent of Yamhill-Carlton schools. ''We've gotten to the point where we can no longer 'do no harm.' We're starting to eviscerate education.''
Yamhill is far from alone. The Center on Education Policy reports that 70 percent of school districts nationwide endured budget cuts in the school year that just ended, and 84 percent anticipate cuts this year.
In higher education, the same drama is unfolding. California's superb public university system is being undermined by the biggest budget cuts in the state's history. Tuition is set to rise about 20 percent this year, on top of a 26 percent increase last year, which means that college will become unaffordable for some.
The immediate losers are the students. In the long run, the loser is our country.
Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, two Harvard economists, argue in their book ''The Race Between Education and Technology'' that a prime factor in America's rise over the last two centuries was its leadership in educating the masses.
On the eve of World War I, only 1 percent of Britain's young people graduated from high school, compared with 9 percent of Americans. By 1950, a majority of American youths were graduating from high school, compared with only 10 percent of British youths.
American pre-eminence in mass education has eroded since the 1970s, and now a number of countries have leapfrogged us in high school graduation rates, in student performance, in college attendance. If you look for the classic American faith in the value of broad education to spread opportunity, you can still find it -- in Asia.
When I report on poverty in Africa and poverty in America, the differences are vast. But there is a common thread: chipping away at poverty is difficult and uncertain work, but perhaps the anti-poverty program with the very best record is education -- and that's as true in New York as it is in Nigeria.
Granted, budget shortfalls are real, and schools need reforms as well as dollars. Pouring money into a broken system isn't a solution, and we need more accountability. But it's also true that blindly slashing budgets is making the problems worse. As Derek Bok, the former Harvard president, once observed, ''If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.''
Still, we nation-build in Afghanistan and scrimp at home. How is it that we can afford to double our military budget since 9/11, can afford the carried-interest tax loophole for billionaires, can afford billions of dollars in givebacks to oil and gas companies, yet can't afford to invest in our kids' futures?
Sometimes I hear people endorse education cuts by arguing that ''school isn't for everybody,'' which usually means something like ''education isn't for other people's children'' -- or that farm kids in places like Yamhill really don't need schools that double as rocket ships. I can't think of any view that is more un-American.