The Key to Successful Economies, Communities, and People? Strong Public Education.

by Greg Prestemon

If you were an American male born in 1900, you died, on average, just after your 46th birthday.

If you were an American female born in 1900, you died, on average, just after your 48th birthday.

That means you needed to have kids by age 16, grandchildren by 32, and retire and move to Florida by age 40.

Thankfully, things have changed.

If you are an American male born in 2000, you will likely die (or be uploaded into the digital Matrix-like afterlife some 22-year-old Stanford graduate is probably working on) just shy of your 75th birthday. For females, that will happen just before your 80th birthday.

A lot of important things happened to change life expectancy in the 20th century.

John D. Rockefeller helped fund the creation of modern medical education. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. The publication of The Jungle and its description of food handling ultimately led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, and the implementation of proper sanitation in food production. Millions of Americans also gained access to clean drinking water and indoor plumbing.

And we became more educated.

In 1900, 6.4% of Americans finished high school. In 2000, that number was 67% (and in 2010, 75%)—and study after study shows longer lifespans are directly correlated to education.

In the first years of the 20th century, life looked pretty daunting. Income inequality was worse than ever. The economy was in a tailspin because of the Panic of 1907. Politics were dominated by a larger-than-life celebrity politician from New York (Teddy Roosevelt), and there was even a heroin epidemic.

If you consider having to use outdoor plumbing to be a rough equivalent of watching the news these days, then life 110 years ago sounds a little like life today.

But things got better—in large part because America developed the best public education system in the world.

Good public education changes everything.

Education makes us more informed, more adaptable, more innovative, and better able to solve the problems we face. Education helped us understand that the germs killing us might come from handling raw meat with filthy hands, rather than a pesky germ fairy.

And besides making us healthier, education makes us exponentially richer.

By 1918, every state required children to attend elementary school, and equipping every child with a basic set of skills helped fuel some of the fastest economic growth the world has ever seen.

On the local level, I’ve seen the importance of a culture and community that prioritizes public education.

Here in St. Charles County, our students attend public school districts that are all fully accredited with distinction by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Overall, public school districts in St. Charles County rank in the top 25% of all Missouri districts.

We also have a group of private and public sector leaders who’ve emphasized STEM education and support area students who have bright futures in STEM-related professions.

The result of our local educational efforts is a county with one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, a skilled workforce, and a vibrant middle class.

In 2017, the phrase “a good education” means different things. For some, a good education means learning the skills to land a good-paying job in the skilled trades after high school graduation. For others, it means a four-year degree or more.

But the foundation of a strong local economy and a healthy society is a high-performing K-12 educational system that’s accessible to everyone.

In the 20th century, widely accessible education helped us live longer, better lives.

In the 21st century, public education will help us meet (and conquer) the challenges we face.

In St. Charles County, a great public education system makes us one of the best places in the country to do business.

Education makes us more tolerant, innovative, and builds strong local economies.

In the words of The Office’s Michael Scott, there is only one way to describe something like that:

It’s a win-win-win.