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Demand for School Improvement Is Losing Steam

Education holds decreasing political interest for an aging population.

August 30, 2004|Arthur Levine

The baby boomers put education on the national agenda, and now they are taking it off.

School improvement has been a staple of the last five presidential campaigns. But this may be the last time it is a priority in the platforms of either political party. In exit polls in the early presidential primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, school improvement placed fourth on the list of voter concerns, after healthcare, the economy and the war in Iraq/terrorism.

The rise and decline of school improvement as a national issue have been driven largely by demographics. Constituting nearly 30% of the nation's population and more than 60% of its voters, baby boomers -- Americans born between 1946 and 1964 -- have had a strong effect on shaping the U.S. agenda.

When the boomers became parents, they wanted better schools for their offspring. In order to compete for the baby boomer vote, politicians adopted an education platform.

The boomers' attention forced education, once left to the states, onto the federal agenda. The youngest baby boomers turn 40 this year, and many of their children have completed or are approaching the completion of their schooling. Accordingly, the boomers' interest in school reform has waned, replaced by a concern for their parents and their own impending retirements. The boomers are now asking government for elder care/comprehensive healthcare; increased Social Security; more social services, including home health aides; low-cost, high-quality nursing homes; and relief from the often-staggering personal and financial costs of supporting their parents.

The effect of this sea change will be a realignment of national political priorities. Politicians will read the polls, which show healthcare eclipsing education as a concern. With increasing frequency, elder care will be on the lips of every aspirant to office, much as education was for years.

The problem, though, is this: The nation has not completed the task of improving our schools. We have two separate and unequal school systems in the United States, one for low- income, urban children of color and another for their more affluent, suburban, largely white peers. Schools are steadily resegregating; in fact, the number of black students in predominantly minority schools has risen since its low in the mid-1980s and now stands at more than 68%. And although suburban schools, already in decent shape when the school reform movement began in the mid-1980s, have improved considerably, no inner-city school system has ever been successfully turned around. To do so would be hard and expensive work, and government has been unwilling to make the necessary investments.

The easiest thing for our political leaders would be to move on and embrace the next priority. They could get away with it because the parents of urban children, attending failing schools, have low voting rates compared with the boomers, a majority of whom live in the suburbs.

Though turning away from school improvement might be expedient politically, doing so is bad social policy. Inner-city parents are going to have to help politicians do the right thing. They need to register to vote and go to the polls, telling candidates there is no issue more important to their community than providing a quality education for their children. They need to engage in peaceful demonstrations and tell our government leaders they are unwilling to send their children to failing schools and want schools like those attended by middle-class children. They need to create charter schools if government is unwilling to close failing neighborhood schools. They need to turn to the courts for remedies that will end the separate and unequal condition of our nation's schools and their children's education.

Indeed, we're seeing challenges of precisely this kind in lawsuits like the one brought successfully by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in New York, which has forced the state to provide more money to ensure that every child receives an adequate education.

No issue remains a national priority forever. In the case of education, the remaining time is short.

Our nation needs to act now if we are ever to complete the school improvement agenda for all our children.


Arthur Levine is president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

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