Last month, we remembered the fortieth anniversary of the death of President Lyndon Johnson, who is perhaps best known for having declared a war on poverty. According to census data, the national poverty rate lowered by 8.3 percent in the 1960s and programs like the Job Corps, Head Start, food stamps, Medicaid, and Medicare continue to alleviate poverty today.
Nevertheless, the scourge of poverty hasn’t been eliminated. In California, 16 percent of the population lives in poverty. Contrary to popular belief, these people aren’t all “welfare queens” as according to the Public Policy
Institute of California, 62.4 percent of Californians in poverty are in working families.
One of the most important indicators of whether someone will end up in poverty is the quality and quantity of their education. In California, the poverty rate for those families headed by at least one college graduate is 5.2 percent. The rate for those families with no adults who had graduated high school is 31.3 percent. Therefore it is clear that one of the battlelines in the fight against poverty has to be public schools.
There is no magic bullet solution. What is needed is an honest debate where students are put first, not pithy talking points or special interests.
In my opinion, we should give serious consideration to the proposals of Michelle Rhee, who was the chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools from 2007 to 2010. The District of Columbia is 51st in high school graduation rates, with only 56 percent of the class of 2012 graduating. Before she was forced to resign, Rhee tried to reform the district, firing teachers who received poor reviews under D.C.’s IMPACT teacher evaluation program. Her approach can be moderated by the need for different standards on judging teacher performance and the need for some level of job security. Unions are not demons. But is bureaucratic red tape always necessary?
Social welfare programs should be strengthened and made more efficient and less wasteful. They shouldn’t be dismantled. Nobody can learn on an empty stomach. Universities have to do their part. A family that’s barely able to pay the bills would find it challenging to say the least to send a kid to college without accumulating thousands of dollars in debt. Finally, there are some actions that can be taken that government can’t perform. Maybe if we had more intact homes and families, more responsible parenting, and more stable communities, things would be better. It can be awfully hard to focus on Geometry or Chemistry when there are murders in your neighborhood, or when you don’t have a father and your mother has to hold down two jobs.
What is needed most, however, is an end to the sanctimonious drivel. This isn’t a problems for unions or reformers or for liberals or conservatives; it’s a problem for all of us.