Our country is rich beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors. Part of that richness is seen in our abundant physical assets like buildings, homes, airplanes, cars, infrastructure and you name it.

Those assets pale in importance to our richest asset - human capital. Human capital is simply the skills and education held by our people. Go anywhere in the world and you'll see that the wealth and resiliency of a people depend on human capital.

When companies have to employ English and math teachers to teach even college graduates how to write a memo or perform simple computations, that's a message saying there's a threat to our human capital base. The National Assessment of Educational Progress recently reported that nearly a third of the nation's fourth-graders can't read. For some population groups the figure is as high as 63 percent. This is devastating. If one can't read and write by the time he's nine, he'll probably never catch up.

What can be done? Surely, it's not more money. We've been doing that and academic excellence has been in steep decline. I propose educational vouchers as one solution. That way parents can fire failing schools. That's precisely what we do if we have money invested in a poorly performing company. We fire it and put our money elsewhere.

I'm Walter Williams
December 2001 NBR commentary