Floods, fires, failing crops — it didn't matter. In times of crisis, Americans have pulled together. However, our debate over school vouchers revealed the ominous threat this generation faces: a loss of commitment to the common good.

The debate centered on how to fix education against how to "save it" — privatization, choice, accountability, save the children, the poor and minorities. All were patchwork solutions to fix an outdated institution that is now making our nation lose ground in the global economy. Missing from the debate was the concern for our nation. It was parochial, all about "me." No one asked the question, How should we restructure our education system so our nation can succeed in a constantly changing world?

The crisis this generation faces is one of confidence and lack of leadership. Our nation was built and prospered by individuals who were not afraid to act. They did so with confidence in themselves and in their fellow citizens. They dared to dream and were not afraid to fail. Standing still when you have to defend your country or your family is not an option.

We have stopped believing in ourselves. We seem to be living in fear and unable to muster the will and the confidence past generations had. Today we are more divided and blaming each other for the failure of our schools, but much of the blame rests with the average citizen who sits back and does nothing.

My loving critics complain that I do not offer specific solutions. All too often, individuals look to others for solutions, but our democracy doesn't work that way. It was designed so that people kept informed and took action when our government needed a push — sometimes a big one. We live with the myth that leaders mean someone else, rather than seeing ourselves as leaders. The solutions rest with each of us. The voucher debate was started by leaders who had the courage to reach out to others and act.

Changing institutions requires leaders who offer a vision of what institutions ought to do that promote the public's interest, rather than tinkering with the system as we have done with education. When the owners decided that the old downtown Key Bank Building was not worth fixing, it was blown up, making room for a newer building designed to meet today's needs. We need leaders who have the courage to do the same with education: Build a new education system that can prepare children and adults with the skills needed to succeed in the new economy.

The voucher fight also brought out the strengths of our people. We care enough to argue and to fight for our beliefs. It wasn't about vouchers. It was our way of trying to fix a failing system that has left caring citizens frightened about the future of our children. It also brought the ingredients needed to bring about change. It started with someone who stood up and offered a solution and found others with the same passion. That's the way our democracy works. There was a tremendous amount of human energy mobilized and over $8 million spent. Can you imagine what we could do if we combined that passion and money to build a new system? What if we came together around a common goal to restructure our education system so it can prepare our people with the world-class skills needed to succeed in today's global economy?

As my friend the late Judge Frank Wilkins often said, "That's big medicine."

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: ">[email protected]