The American public education system has been the bright star at the center of American success. It was the great equalizer that took in immigrants and kids from disadvantaged homes, and in turn propelled legions of educated people ready to climb the social pyramid and win -- in academia, enterprise and public service.
Bill Clinton, a graduate of Arkansas' public education system, made it to Yale, the Governor's Mansion, and then to the White House.
But like all great man-made systems, America's public education has decayed. Over the years, it has been captured by special interests -- unions, corporate constituencies and even political forces that have sought to both control and profit from the gigantic expenditures in education.
In Los Angeles, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second biggest in the country, is rife with failure. Embarrassingly low graduation rates (lucky to reach 50%), low college attendance of those who actually manage to graduate, social promotion, over-powerful special interests and the politicians whom those interests control have come together in a toxic stew that has left America's second largest city with a third-world education system.
If a successful public education system is the cornerstone of democracy and national prosperity, Los Angeles is showing the way in how we can effectively devolve as a society.
Through long-term, unchecked systemic failure of our public schools, the LAUSD is now the driving force in perpetuating poverty, deepening class and ethnic divisions and presiding over the destruction of human capital at an unprecedented scale in the Los Angeles metropolitan region.
In the 21st century economy, knowledge workers - people who have succeeded in school and college - will be the major participants of a prosperous nation. Those kids left behind by the incompetence of LAUSD, and other notable failures across the country, will most likely be destined to make minimal contributions to their own prosperity or to society.
Fewer kids chasing that dream of starting a business, piloting a plane, or becoming a scientist, and, simply, more kids lost to ruthless poverty. A life where the Great Books are set aside for mouse and the remote.
Here's a partial list that helps quantify the District's failure: a graduation rate of approximately 50%, only 11% of graduates reach four year colleges, LAUSD's finances are teetering on the brink of insolvency, there is a seeming lack of internal financial controls. (Last year the district "lost" some $200 million paying people who did not work for the district, according to the LAUSD Inspector General's report; more recently they "found" an extra $50 million in their budget, and they are now undertaking a massive teacher and other staff lay-off that will be another blow to many schools and their kids.)
You don't have to dig deep to find irregularities in LAUSD. Recently, under newly approved education reforms, several groups (teachers, new operators, charter operators, a group endorsed by Mayor Villaraigosa) submitted proposals to run one of the new academies at the Esteban Torres school in East L.A. The project was awarded to a group biding with the pilot developed by Inner City Struggle, whose Executive Director is Maria Brenes. Brenes is married to Luis Sanchez - LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia's chief of staff. Too cozy for comfort?
And how about the fact that for years, LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines "moonlighted" on the board of Scholastic Books, earning him some $150,000 a year, and no one at LAUSD seemed to find this to be at all inappropriate - even though Scholastic holds a $10 million contract with the district.
While this stark reality seems intractable, a harbinger of total collapse of our democracy, it is not.
Corruption in the LAUSD can be rooted out through effective law enforcement.
Voters can remove the paid and bought for politicians who have run the system as a personal power and economic base. These are the politicians - for they cannot be confused with leaders - who have thrust the LAUSD into near bankruptcy, both financial and moral.
Great teachers can be identified and supported. Throughout the LAUSD there are brilliant teachers that know the system is broken and needs to be rebuilt from A-Z. These teachers are a critical part of the solution and need to be nurtured with resources and opportunities to innovate. And they also need effective allies to push back the ravenous bureaucracy that every day consumes their best efforts.
Parents can be inculcated with an ethos of educational excellence - and made full partners in the success of their kid's education. Parents need to do their homework. They need to know that there's a geometry quiz on Tuesday and that a drug dealer was arrested around the block from the school last week. They need to know what their kids are up against, and support them.
While the evidence of LAUSD's failure is overwhelming, we must focus on solutions that transform education outcomes for today's kids, as well as tomorrow's. This is a crisis that demands energetic leadership and execution.
The idea that we can wait, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., for the system to somehow fix itself is unacceptable. The lives of the approximately 700,000 students currently in the LAUSD are at stake. The future of our city is inextricably bound to the success of public education. And the potential for America to maintain and extend its global leadership is also in play.
The time has come for the entire community to come together to seek a radical solution to the LAUSD problem.
No more step by step fights to gain minor victories. No more protracted, theatrical deliberations that are meant to stall reform and protect vested interests at the expense of our kids. We must have the vision and courage to break the grip of special interests and work tirelessly and with complete focus, to create a new public education system that will be the pride of the nation - and propel Los Angeles to its rightful place as the envisioned Metropolis of the West, a place of promise and fulfillment.
A true democracy can only exist if the citizen is properly and broadly educated to be an informed participant in the political system. Universal public education, as the founding fathers foresaw, confers benefits to the nation's economic progress. Better educated people could more easily develop new industries and more ably manage America's thriving capitalist economy.
Indeed, we have seen the fruits of that vision in America's global leadership over the last century. Our founders knew it: the future of the United States' greatness will be driven by a world-class public education system.
Are we up to the challenge of fulfilling that brilliant vision? Yes, we are.