THE nation's governors point to an old African proverb when discussing America's educational problems. The proverb says:
"It takes an entire village to raise a child."
Likewise, it will take an entire nation - every state, every city, every town - to raise the standards of education for all students in the United States.
More than 40 of the nation's governors are meeting this week in Princeton, N.J., and Topic A will be education, which they call the key to America's economic future.
Two years ago, the governors set six challenging goals to make United States education first in the world by the year 2000; now they're trying to figure out how to achieve them.
Gov. Jim Florio (D) of New Jersey, the host governor for this year's annual conference, says Americans are "coming to realize that if the nation is to remain an economic power, it must do so through education."
The governors already have decided that education reform will entail much more than the old, reliable lineup of reading, writing, and arithmetic. It must involve new, expanded roles for parents, neighbors, businesses, government, and the community at large.
For example, goal No. 1 in the governors' report is that "by the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn."
But how to achieve that? During the past year, a team of 11 governors, led by Gov. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio, found that getting ready for that first day of school involves a lot more than putting on a clean shirt and packing a lunch box. Nor does Washington have "some magic solution," Governor Voinovich warns.
The governors say preparation of the children must start with the families. Mothers, for example, must get the right food while they are pregnant. Expectant mothers also should have access to health care, and should not smoke or drink alcohol or use illegal drugs.
After children are born, they need a good environment (free from lead paint, for example), proper food, decent homes, and lots of parental attention. Sometimes these goals will require government spending for such things as food stamps or prenatal care. The governors' report calls this a good investment.
For example, the governors say, $1 invested in prenatal care can save $3.38 in later medical care for low birth weight infants; $1 spent for quality preschool education returns $3 because of lower costs for welfare and crime in later years.
As the report notes: "It is estimated that each dollar spent today on at-risk children to prevent educational failure will produce long-term savings to society."
What has galvanized state-level attention to education is the powerful threat of economic competition from Japan, Germany, and other nations.
The governors' report explains: "Children are our most valuable resource, and their education is key to our nation's vitality and long-term growth."
This is one of the prime areas of "public investment" which Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has made a centerpiece of his campaign against President Bush. White House allies, such as Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, insist that current levels of public investment at the federal level are adequate.
Rae Young Bond, an official with the National Governors' Association, says the states see an urgent need to improve American education at a rapid pace. In the 1950s and 1960s, the US school system was good enough to keep the economy moving forward, with living standards doubling every generation and a half.
However, in recent years, that has not been true. Incomes, adjusted for inflation, have stagnated since the 1970s. Some measurements show the middle-class shrinking, while a large pool of workers and families are relegated for the first time to low-income status.
Men and women with only high school educations, or less, are particularly at risk.
Yet the challenge for today's schools has become far tougher than it was in the 1950s. As Ms. Bond notes, schools today face hurdles to learning never dreamed of by earlier educators: millions of broken families, large numbers of students who do not speak English, illegal drugs, violence, latch-key children who get only a modicum of attention from their parents.
All this has created a need to "redesign the whole educational system," she says. That redesign is just beginning to take shape.