Rarely will you see this author praising Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, the kings of grievance politics. However, it appears that Reverend Jackson has decided to finally address the central issue affecting the black community: abysmal academic performance. Jackson’s article in the Chicago Sun Times on Tuesday the 27th decried the low graduation rates (currently 42 percent of blacks who enter ninth grade graduate from high school) and the failure of poor black youths to escape poverty. “They are headed toward jail, not toward Yale” warned Jackson.
Remarkably, Jackson composed an entire op-ed piece without condemning President Bush. Where has the familiar Jesse gone? I suspect that the Reverend is jealous of the significant media attention showered on Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey in recent years. Their national ‘speak-outs’ concerning the poor academic performance of black youths, especially boys, have pointed a spotlight on the abysmal state of our urban public school system. Although both Cosby and Oprah have garnered criticism, they have also garnered attention. And if there is one thing Jesse can’t stand it’s someone else stealing his thunder.
The fact of the matter is that black males have been in crisis for decades. We may have lost an entire generation. Jackson is sounding the alarm that we are in danger of losing another. He correctly points out the shortcomings of the No Child Left Behind Act and argues that mandating school performance “doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a reform plan to fix what isn’t working.” I agree. However, all of Jackson’s reforms amount to more of the same. He advocates longer school days and an extended school year as a way to raise academic performance. And while it is certainly true that our school year is anachronistic – based as it is on 18th century agrarian life – our schools don’t do enough with the 180 days they do have.
Jackson also demands better teachers and improved teacher education. He ignores, however, that public school systems are state-run government monopolies. Idealistic, intelligent and motivated teachers are quickly disillusioned by the inefficient, and unresponsive bureaucracy controlling our schools. The sad reality is that school administrators and teachers unions are more committed to jobs, pensions and benefits than they are to educating children. Those who are invested in academic performance, parents, are marginalized under the current system. If Jackson truly wants to earn a reputation as an advocate of the people, he ought to lead the fight for school choice. Empowering parents and enabling schools to compete for the privilege of educating their children is the best route to academic excellence.
Jackson seems more comfortable advocating for increased government funding than he does for true reform. He decries the lack of a “systematic program to ensure prenatal care, health care, day care, and parental education,” and he wants the nation to “mobilize intervention on the front side of these lives.” It is unclear, however, how better health care will translate into improved academic performance. AFDC, food stamps and school lunches already address hunger and malnutrition among the poor. Prenatal care could surely be improved, but blacks immigrating from Africa and the Caribbean – where prenatal care is demonstrably worse – have managed to overcome their circumstances and reach college in large numbers. Jackson is using the crisis affecting black youths in our public school system to generate support for other high-spending government programs. One has to wonder just how serious he really is about helping our children graduate high school and reach college.
I applaud Jackson for stating the obvious: black underachievement is a “national crisis.” However, if Jackson wants to reclaim the limelight from Cosby or Oprah he is going to have to address the issue of black responsibility. At no point in his article does Jackson suggest that the black community might have a role to play in its own uplift. He advocates extending the child tax credit to poor parents, a sentiment I share, but he does not challenge the culture of low expectations plaguing inner-city black communities. There is no higher priority for the black community than to help our children graduate from high school, go to college and enter the highly trained workforce of the 21st century. I sincerely hope Revered Jackson will have the courage to advocate the dual imperatives of school choice reform and personal responsibility. After all, Cosby and Oprah don’t have a monopoly on common sense.
Lee H. Walker is president of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change and a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute. He can be reached at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].