For the first time in nine years, the congressional Joint Economic Committee put aside political squabbles and issued a bipartisan report this week on the problems facing the nation's economy. Unfortunately, it was long on rhetoric and short on specific solutions.

Two crucial obstacles to financial well-being were cited - the federal budget deficit and the nation's education system. Both deserve all the attention they get.On the budget, the committee declared that dealing with the deficit is crucial and called for "realistic and prudent budgeting." Yet just last week, Congress and the administration agreed on a budget plan that essentially postponed all tough decision until next year. It won't be any easier next year; in fact, it may be harder because of elections.

Clearly, recognizing the danger of continued budget deficits is easy. But doing something about them requires political courage, a quality that is too often absent in Congress.

When it comes to education, the committee said failure to improve the school system could saddle the American economy with enormous long-term costs. A dropout rate of 25 percent, high illiteracy and an inability to keep up with the education skills of other industrialized nations are all serious threats to America's future.

Just how much of a threat was outlined last week by U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos in a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He called it an "education deficit," every bit as critical as the budget and trade deficits, maybe more so.

For example, the dropouts who fail to make it to each year's graduating class cost society $228 billion in the long run. That figure is multiplied for each graduating class.

Cavazos calls for "deregulation" of education, allowing parents a choice in selecting schools, thus improving schools through competition. In addition, he said there must be more parental involvement in a child's entire school career; more focus on early childhood education instead of just leaving youngsters in day-care situations; more curriculum reform and more accountability demanded of teachers and administrators.

The Deseret News has supported many of these ideas in the past, but change comes slowly in education. Until the system moves from generalities to specific proposals, in specific ways, and for specific costs, no significant progress will be made.

Yet the problem must be addressed. As the congressional Joint Committee pointed out, it's not just a question of educating more youngsters and doing it better. It's also a question of our country's ability to keep up in a competitive world or whether the United States will slide into a second-rate economic power with a second-rate standard of living.