Opinion: For America’s children, education outlook grows only dimmer

Thirty percent of America’s high school students drop out and never graduate. Fewer than half of the nation’s black and Hispanic students graduate on time from high school.


The scandalous bottom line here is that more than 1 million students drop out of American public schools every year. That works out to more than 6,000 students every day and one student every 26 seconds.

Education in America, particularly big-city education, is in crisis. Historians are already describing the decline of public education as a threat to the nation’s economy and military. And when the tragic scale of harm to racial minorities is considered, the education crisis is aptly labeled as the greatest civil rights challenge of the 21st century.

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I am the host of a half-hour video documentary, produced by education reform activist Kyle Olson, telling the story of how a Democrat — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel  — is risking his political life by fighting the city’s teachers’ union to improve schools. (Take a look at TwoMissionsMovie.com.)

The film is being released to support school-reform advocates who have designated this week National School Choice Week.

The idea is simple: Better schools will result if parents have more control over how tax dollars are spent on education. That means bipartisan, coast-to-coast support for charter schools, vouchers and anything else that introduces competition and innovation into a stultified, failing education system.

Despite spending trillions of dollars on education over the past decades, Congress as well as local governments have been unable to address the scale of the myriad problems that have crippled the public school system.

Yet there is little urgency in the halls of Congress.

Just look at the stalled debate in Congress over renewal of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the bipartisan legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. It links federal education funding to student performance. The best schools — those able to show improved student performance and graduation rates  — get the most federal education dollars.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said last fall the best we can hope for is a “piecemeal” reauthorization of certain parts of the law. Now even that seems optimistic.  There has been zero progress.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is trying his best to find a way to make progress without setting off the political landmines attached to NCLB.

His answer, titled “Race to the Top,” offers federal stimulus dollars to school systems willing to use the latest proven strategies for improving student performance. But stimulus funding is unpopular and coming to an end. The consequence is that “Race to the Top” funding is being cut this year.

In 2002, a passionate Bush called for school reform because the failure of too many low-income children was being ignored. He rightly identified that attitude as the “bigotry of low expectations.”

But the Bush-era program is unpopular on the political left and right. Teachers complain about the tyranny of testing. Unions complain about credentials for principals and teachers. Many parents, disturbed by the harsh stigma of having local schools designated as “failing,” also oppose the law.

The result is that NCLB has become politically toxic. Despite the ongoing damage to human potential perpetrated in the schools, there is no prospect for a renewal package that will pass both the House and the Senate.

The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have been opponents of NCLB from the beginning. They are happy to see the law expire.

Democrats, who represent most of the big cities and the children being hurt by poor schools, do not wish to antagonize the NEA and AFT because teachers’ unions are essential to funding their campaigns. In the last election cycle, the teachers’ unions were second only to the big labor unions — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Service Employees International Union — funding Democratic campaigns.

On the Republican side, the conservative base has never been fully on board with NCLB. GOP presidential candidates get thunderous applause whenever they call for eliminating it. They denounce it as big government’s intrusion into what should be a state and local issue.

While these political games continue to be played in Washington, the systemic problems in education fester and grow, leaving behind more students.

Real education reform that would actually benefit students always seems to be another year and another election away. But America’s children don’t have years. They are dropping out, unemployed, and filling up jails right now. They cannot wait on cowardly politicians and corrupt teachers’ unions to get their act together.

School children don’t vote. They don’t donate to campaigns. So the politicians continue to fiddle while the nation’s children get left behind.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.