Why Reforming Education Is a Critical National Priority

Why Reforming American Education Is Crucial
By James Castagnera
Attorney at Large
Last week in this space, talking about how to win the war on terror, I asserted, “The American workforce must be better prepared to compete in the global marketplace. When we are through congratulating ourselves on electing our first black president, let’s recall that inner-city high school graduation rates still hover at or below 50 percent in most major metropolises. Colleges are over-priced and inefficiently labor-intensive. We are cranking out too many lawyers and too few engineers and scientists.”
Just as I am convinced that our national security against terrorists rests primarily on good police work, secure borders, and a sensible immigration policy, the proliferation of drug wars, inner-city gangs, and campus crazies persuades me that education — like energy — is a national security issue.  I offer two reasons why.
First, no democracy can feel itself either fair or safe, when it allows an inner-city proletariat to persist and fester from generation to generation.  According to the cover story in the December 8th TIME Magazine, “Young Americans are less likely than their parents were to finish high school.”  Adds the article’s authors, “This is an issue that is warping the nation’s economy and security.”  They are right.
A report issued in April by America’s Promise Alliance and reported on Fox News found high school graduation rates below 50% in America’s 50 largest cities.  According to Fox, “The report found troubling data on the prospects of urban public high school students getting to college. In Detroit’s public schools, 24.9 percent of the students graduated from high school, while 30.5 percent graduated in Indianapolis Public Schools and 34.1 percent received diplomas in the Cleveland Municipal City School District.”
Consider this:  the odds that you or I will be the victim of one of these thousands of high school dropouts is astronomically higher than the chance that one of us will be killed by an international terrorist.  Philadelphia annually averages about 400 homicides, for example.  While many of these killings are drug dealers or gang members taking out their rivals in jungle-land turf battles, the collateral damage in innocent citizens, including kids, is heartbreaking.
We need only glance across our southern border to Juarez, Mexico, to see how much worse it could become.  As early this year as February 28th, the Dallas News reported 72 drug-related murders in Juarez and worried that the violence could begin spilling over the porous border.  In Mexico, the killings include public officials who try to oppose the warring factions.  “Among the dead there: journalists, a city council member and a police chief on the job just seven hours before he was gunned down. Additionally, the cartels tried to assassinate a federal legislator. And efforts to clean up the force have stalled, as nobody wants the job of police chief. Local media self-censors to survive.”  A popular way for cartel killers to communicate their message is to hang a beheaded corpse from a highway overpass.
How great is the distance between Philadelphia and Juarez?  Thousands of miles as the crow flies, but perhaps only a few years away in terms of escalating violence, as our uneducated proletariats turn in increasing numbers to the only livelihood likely to pay them well.
For those who do graduate from high school and hope to come to college, the current financial crisis may pose an insurmountable barrier.  College students already are regularly graduating with five-figure “mortgages” on their diplomas.  Often, if mom and pop are footing the tuition bills, an actual second-mortgage on the family homestead is how the money is raised.  Now, even that undesirable method may be slipping away, as home equity shrinks and major lenders like City Bank flounder.  We’ll have to wait and see whether the college class of 2013, which will come to campus in September ’09, will be substantially smaller than this year’s crop of collegians.  I predict it will be.
Those who can’t afford college probably won’t be working either.  This morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer’s front page reports the highest unemployment rate in 34 years: 6.7% nationally.  More than 500,000 jobs, adds the Inky, evaporated just last month.
More than 100 years ago, the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow claimed, “There are more people go to jail in hard times than in good times — few people comparatively go to jail except when they are hard up. They go to jail because they have no other place to go. They may not know why, but it is true all the same. People are not more wicked in hard times. That is not the reason. The fact is true all over the world that in hard times more people go to jail than in good times, and in winter more people go to jail than in summer….  The people who go to jail are almost always poor people — people who have no other place to live first and last.”
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, more than 700 people per 100,000.  Only Russia, some of the other states of the former USSR, and a couple of Caribbean countries come close.  Are we stronger on law and order than our sister democracies?  Or are we failing to provide alternatives to crime?
And where lies the greater threat to our security, Afghanistan or the city nearest your home?
[Jim Castagnera, formerly of Jim Thorpe, is a Philadelphia lawyer and writer.  His 17th book, Al Qaeda Goes to College, will be published in the spring by Praeger.]

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