Last week started off with the eighth Republican primary debate of the year, on Monday night. According to my own count, there were 15 questions (and answers) on tax reform, 2 on energy and jobs, one heated back-and-forth on health care, 12 questions and responses on immigration, 5 on the home-mortgage crisis, 3 on the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, 4 on religion and values, 4 on the budget deficit, one on terrorism, 4 on foreign policy and a final question on who is the best candidate in general to win the race.
How many questions and responses were there on the public education crisis and education reform? Zero.
That needs to change. Education must be the top issue in the election season ahead. It is a question of economics, growth, basic social justice and human rights.
Being an American citizen gave me every opportunity in the world. I was born in Texas when my parents immigrated here in the 1980s. Even though I grew up abroad, I came back to pursue my higher education in the country that has the best universities in the world. More than ever before, I felt blessed to be a U.S. citizen as I applied for colleges, and throughout my undergraduate education.
A few months after I graduated in 2009, I got a job at a non-profit organization that worked with inner-city schools in Boston. That is when I discovered that even though being an American citizen had opened up every opportunity in the world to me, there were many U.S. citizens in this country that had very little opportunity at all, through no fault of their own, particularly children. That was when I first learned about the high school dropout crisis and the public education crisis in America.
I learned that almost 50% of children in low-income communities would drop out of high school. I also learned that "dropout factories" were producing 1 out of 5 students who did not graduate. I recently learned that each school day, about 7,000 students would become a dropout, adding up to approximately 1.3 million students who would not graduate from high school each school year (according to a 2009 brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education).
I found great injustice in the idea that so many people (including my own parents and grandparents) immigrate from all over the world to the land of opportunity, when so many children in the public schools across this land have very little opportunity at all for a bright, happy future. I find the injustice and inequality particularly hard to swallow now, as I pursue my graduate studies at Columbia University, five blocks away from a public school in Harlem where I have met eleven-year-olds who cannot read basic children's books.
The problem is not just about education and graduating from school but, really, what comes after. We know that high school and college graduates are more likely to find work and get higher paid jobs. Even more significantly, high school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates (according to a study from the Center for Labor Markets at Northeastern University). At a time when there is great emphasis on cutting costs and growing the economy and job force, this is more important than ever.
To be sure, there are many extraneous issues that add strain to low-income schools and contribute to dropout rates, including poverty and problems in students' homes, which need their own set of experts, social workers and general economic reform. However, these additional complications cannot become a scapegoat for struggling schools and should not prevent fixing what we can be fixed in the public education system.
Parents, teachers, school administrators, community members, and even students, need to write letters (or send emails, make phone calls, direct tweets, etc.) to their representatives in congress, local legislators, senators and every presidential candidate (including President Obama), making this the number one priority for the election season ahead of us -- and those voted into both local and national government next November.
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