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When the history of Barack Obama’s presidency is written, much will be said about his effort to reform this nation’s health care system. That’s understandable. The 46 million in America who don’t have health insurance have fallen through a gaping hole in this country’s social safety net. That’s a troubling oxymoron in a nation that leads the world in medical research and treatment.


But if Obama succeeds in his efforts to transform America’s education system, that will be the hallmark of his presidency and the thing historians should most remember about his stint in the White House. As important as it is for Obama to end this nation’s health care crisis, it is even more necessary for him to fix our public education system.

As the Obama administration was trying last week to round up the votes needed to win passage of its health care reform bill in the House of Representatives, the Detroit education system announced it is considering closing 45 of its 172 schools. This is being done not only to address the system’s huge financial deficit, but also to repair its educational shortfall.

Just 3% of Detroit’s fourth-graders were proficient in math, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. The city’s eighth-graders didn’t do much better. Only 4% were rated proficient. In both categories, Detroit’s fourth- and eighth-graders recorded the lowest scores of the 18 cities that took part in the NAEP math test.

By closing schools and reorganizing the school system’s structure and approach to education, Detroit hopes to improve high school graduation rates from the current level of 58% to 98% by 2015.

School officials in Kansas City, Mo., are shutting down an even bigger chunk of their school system. To avoid bankruptcy, they are closing 26 of 61 schools. To boost academic performance, they are proposing a longer school day — and a longer school year for the school district, which has slightly fewer than 18,000 students.

Detroit and Kansas City have company. Cities across the nation are struggling with dwindling enrollments as parents move their children from urban to suburban public schools, or into private schools. And they are grappling with ways to improve the test scores of the children who are left behind. In February, a Rhode Island school board voted to fire all the teachers and administrators at a school where half of the students are failing every subject.

Last year, Obama called for some sweeping education reforms, including a longer school year and more hours in a school day. He also increased funding for Head Start and dangled grants totaling $4.35 billion before schools willing to implement “effective education reform strategies.”

Then, last month, as the fight over his plan to reform health care raged, Obama announced major changes to the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, including new incentives for schools to make progress in educating public schoolchildren. American fourth-graders rank 11th in math scores and 10th in science scores in an international assessment of test scores, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Increasing the number of people with medical insurance is a good thing. It will improve the length and quality of life for a lot of people. But fixing our broken public schools will do even more. It will help this nation maintain its competitive edge — and its position as the world’s dominant economic and political force.