09/23/2011 03:32 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Lawmakers, Media Must Treat Education as an Economic Issue

In the most recent weekly tracking poll by the Economist and YouGov, 6 percent of Americans named education as the issue that is most important to them. Forty percent said the economy was the most important.

That's not surprising considering the nation is facing 9.1 percent unemployment.

In the Sept. 7 Republican presidential candidates' debate at the Reagan Library, the word "education" was mentioned in two moderator questions and three candidate answers. In President Barack Obama's speech two days later to Congress unveiling his new jobs package, he uttered the word "education" one time. Questions and discussion about the economy and jobs dominated these primetime events.

That's not surprising considering the nation's economy grew only 1 percent last quarter.

According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, education-related stories amounted to 2 percent of all news stories last year.

That's not surprising considering we have a $1.3 trillion projected deficit for the fiscal year and Americans are fearful we owe too much money to creditor nations like China.

What is surprising is that we, as a nation, aren't fully making the connection between education, local, state and federal budget matters, and the economy.

At 30 Rockefeller Center next week, we'll be trying to make that connection more apparent. On Sept. 25, NBC will kick off its annual Education Nation summit. Education Nation, in its second year, is NBC's attempt to provoke and sustain a solutions-focused conversation about the state of education in America.

Our lineup this year is phenomenal. Our schedule includes panel discussions on inequality among school districts, on what the U.S. can learn from our global allies, and on immigration's impact on education. Participants include actress Jennifer Garner, who will participate in a panel on early childhood education (Garner has a vested interest: she's expecting her third child); thought leaders like Pedro Noguera and Diane Ravitch of New York University and Dennis van Roekel of the National Education Association; several of our nation's governors and city leaders; and teachers, administrators, and parents.

A theme throughout each discussion will be the impact that education has on the future of our economy.

In the U.S., only 72 percent of our public high school students graduate on time. Only 58 percent of Latinos finished high school with a diploma while 57 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Native Americans graduated.

The U.S. can't remain the strongest nation in the world with numbers like these. As Melinda Gates once said the failure of our high schools is "bad business, and it's bad policy."

In my years as NBC News' chief education correspondent I have seen devoted teachers, administrators and local advocates change individual schools and districts. What I've been frustrated with is the lack of sustained focus among media circles and the political establishment on this issue. Ms. Gates' quote above ends, "[W]e act as if it can't be helped. It can be helped. We designed these high schools; we can redesign them."

She is right. We can change things -- not just our high schools, but our preschools; not just the resources we give to teachers, but the way we train them; not just our curriculum, but the way we view the purpose of education (for more on this see my Huffington Post column from Sept. 15).

I'm proud that NBC is doing its part to facilitate that change.

Poll questions that pit issue against issue may show education far down the scale in terms of importance. But that scale is all in the wording. According to that same weekly Economist poll, fully 59 percent of Americans say education is a "very" important issue to them.

They're concerned because they are parents like me and they want to see their children successful and financially independent in the future. Or, they are business owners and worry about finding skilled workers to fill jobs and help their companies grow. Or, they're just everyday citizens who want to make certain the next generation is prepared to take care of the nation they're going to inherit.

In the media, we need to make the issue of education as urgently important to us as it is to parents and job creators. In convening this summit each year, and pledging more in depth coverage of education throughout the year, that is what NBC is attempting to do.

We hope our colleagues in the media and our leaders in statehouses across the country and Washington, D.C. will join us.

Rehema Ellis is NBC's chief education correspondent. She will be moderating a panel on what the U.S. can learn from other countries during the network's upcoming Education Nation summit. For more information on Education Nation, visit