Saturday, November 17, 2007

Helping children in a state left behind

You know my high school. Or you did, anyway, back in 2003 when grainy video traversed the globe of Glenbrook North girls covered in feces clobbering each other in a “powder-puff” football game.

It’s the scatological stuff YouTube dreams are made of.

What you couldn’t tell from the spectacle, of course, is that GBN is one of the top public schools in the nation, sporting a palatial campus that rivals many colleges. In fact, the state-of-the-art computer labs in our swanky suburban Chicago school put those of Big Ten universities to shame.

In my class, far more students took Advanced Placement English than the regular track and 99 percent of us headed to college.

Not a bad place to be stuck for four years – especially since I opted out of rolling around in crap with other chicks.

Naturally, any time anyone suggests that “throwing money” at education isn’t the solution, I snigger.

Does anyone think for a minute that I started on an even playing field with a poor African-American kid in Detroit, who studies history books that have Ronald Reagan as president in a classroom that often lacks heat?

We callously call those schools dropout factories, scarcely paying attention to the 60 percent who never graduate, or wondering if those who do ever make it to a college lecture hall.

The truth is, I didn’t deserve a world-class education any more than any other child on this earth. I didn’t earn it. I was lucky enough to be born to professional parents who could afford to move into a school district plump with property tax money.

Yes, I was a smart girl who made the most of a good situation. But how many smart kids are languishing in less flush schools right here in Michigan?

It is a travesty.

And we all pay the price.

Lagging well behind the national average, only 24 percent of Michiganders 24 and older have college degrees (A fact that so appalled my former English teacher, she demanded proof from the Census.) The difference between a high school education and a college degree is $1 million in lifetime income. For Michigan, that means less tax revenue, less consumer spending, higher unemployment and more state services.

Soon that will be moot. If you want to work, you’ll have to hit the books. Roughly 85 percent of new jobs require post-secondary education – even the few left in the auto industry, which used to keep the state afloat.

Investing in education is Michigan’s “single, sole securitization of economic betterment,” says former Assistant Secretary of Labor Roberts [CQ] T. Jones, underscoring decades of research.

Why do you suppose countries from China to Kuwait are lavishing money on schools? They’re the ticket out of the developing world into superpower status.

So what do we do in the Mitten State?

Let’s start with the excellent report by the Cherry Commission in 2005.

We now have tougher high school graduation standards to better prepare kids. But most of the group’s other initiatives – such as merit pay for teachers, universal preschool and doubling the number of college graduates – are rotting on the vine.

This is the time to be bold. We need to revitalize the state the way the Kalamazoo Promise has its city, with a scholarship program for up to four free years of college at a state institution.

The impact reverberated immediately throughout the community – increased K-12 enrollment and subsequently state aid, more parental involvement, fewer dropouts and more home sales.

A statewide Promise open to all would be completely unique – a way to make Michigan stand out from the competition, make skilled workers and businesses flock here and turn the economy around long-term.

Here’s the catch: Implementing the Promise statewide would cost $900 million annually. No politician wants to touch that after two recent tax increases, one of which is in the midst of a messy repeal.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm sang the virtues of a strong educational system from preschool to postgrad all the way to re-election last year – and I believe the Harvard grad gets it. But she won’t stick her neck out on this one, since she never has when it counts. Higher ed spending has been massacred by 25 percent under her watch.

House Speaker Andy Dillon was the biggest booster for an expanded Promise – but he’s so frustrated with legislative inertia that he’s said he may leave Lansing.

And unfortunately, Republican leadership on education croaked when lions like Joe Schwarz were term-limited out of the Senate.

So politicians will continue to think short-term and bleat that we can’t spend another dime on education.

In 20 years, when it’s not just Massachusetts, but Arkansas and Mississippi that have left us in the dust, maybe those fearless former leaders can tell our grandchildren why they decided to skimp on their future – and Michigan’s.

But my guess is they’ll have blown this popsicle stand long before then.

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