Trapped City Kids Need Tickets Out, Not More Edu-Insider Chit-Chat

Published June 1, 2008

On April 1 America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of the nation’s education elite, released a report on the school dropout problem, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Conclusion: The dropout situation is considerably worse in big-city schools than in suburban ones.

Surely this was no April Fools’ Day joke, because the disparities between education outcomes in inner-city and suburbia are of serious concern. But neither was this exactly stop-the-presses news–statisticians have demonstrated the gap in test scores as well as dropout rates for decades.

This particular study, however, drew on U.S. Education Department data to document the difference in high school graduation rates between the nation’s 50 largest cities and their suburbs.

In some places, the gap was horrendous–for instance, Baltimore, where the city graduation rate was 34.6 percent while the suburban schools’ was 81.5 percent. That computes to a gap of approximately 47 percentage points.

In Columbus, Ohio, the urban/suburban gap was 42 percentage points, and in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, New York, and Philadelphia it exceeded 30 points.

Wasting Time Talking

In a handful of metro areas, the dropout rate actually was higher in the suburbs than in the cities. That was true for Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Memphis, Phoenix, and Tucson. But for the 50 metro areas as a whole, the city graduation rate was 17 points lower than the suburban rate.

The big question is: What are the nation’s power elites going to do about it?

At the conclusion of a report filled with pretty color graphics, America’s Promise Alliance offered the lamest sort of conclusion: “This movement must proceed hand-in-hand with a fundamental commitment to creating a public education system in which earning a high school diploma is the norm for all students in every community, and where dropping out is a rare exception.”


The coalition founded by retired Gen. Colin Powell and headed by his wife, Alma, plans to conduct “summit meetings” on dropout prevention in all 50 states over the next two years. Let’s assume good intentions, but it is such a typically elitist approach to try to talk a social problem into submission. It is reminiscent of the National Education Summits during the Bush I and Clinton years that generated endless platitudes about the glories of standards-based public education.

Alternatives Needed

What’s needed is not more public education in the big cities. The elite should be figuring out ways to give families, including financially strapped minorities, alternatives to the failed government-run system in the inner cities.

Many families have fled the cities to seek better education for their children in private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, or well-run suburban public schools. That has left many children from low-income homes stuck in dysfunctional city public schools with little or no hope of escape. Too many of them wind up dropping out and becoming statistics in reports ballyhooed in USA Today and other media.

Instead of propping up the current dysfunctional system, the coalition of America’s supposed best and brightest ought to be seeking ways to give city kids passports to schools where they can learn, graduate, and go on to college or employment.

They could do this by endowing private scholarships or advocating for publicly funded ones (vouchers) or those generated through tax credits for individual or corporate gifts to scholarship-awarding organizations.

Real Change Stymied

Dare we say it? Empowering inner-city families with educational choice would be a far better use of billions of Bill and Melinda Gates’s charity dollars than bankrolling more boring summits filled with self-important people offering their pet theories for reforming systems that are incorrigible.

Is there much hope that a coalition that includes Public Enemy No. 1 of parental choice–the National Education Association–is going to do that? Regrettably, no.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.