Invest in America: Educate the children

May 24, 2001|By Irving Pressley McPhail

AMONG industrialized countries, the United States ranks first in military technology, gross domestic product, the number of millionaires and billionaires, health technology, military exports and defense spending.

This is good news, right? But let's consider where we rank in the areas that most affect our most precious resource, our children. The United States is:

Fourteenth in the number of children per capita who are living in poverty.

Sixteenth in living standards among the poorest one-fifth of children.

Sixteenth in efforts to lift children out of poverty.

Eighteenth in the income gap between rich and poor children.

Twenty-first in eighth-grade math scores.

Twenty-second in infant mortality.

Last in protecting our children against gun violence.

Perhaps the most disturbing evidence of how our nation has fallen behind came this spring with the third International Math and Science Study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The findings confirm the vast educational inequities the United States has created. In fact, while some American suburban students ranked among the best in the world, those in some urban school districts scored at the bottom of the list. Students in Chicago, Rochester, N.Y., Jersey City, N.J., and the Miami-Dade school districts scored on the level of those in Tunisia, Macedonia, Turkey and Jordan.

The bottom line is that equal educational opportunity is a myth in millennial America.

The wealthiest school districts spend 56 percent more a student than do the poorest. Students at public schools in poor communities are more likely than their wealthier counterparts to be taught core subjects by a teacher who has not majored in that subject matter.

And there is a persistent achievement gap between black and white students in Maryland.

So how can we ensure the conditions necessary for creating and sustaining a 21st century renaissance for our children?

As a society, we must take specific steps to invest in our children in several ways.

It is essential that we increase investments in helping families pay for child care at the same time that we improve the quality of that care. We must also increase investments in after-school programs to keep children safe and smart.

Moreover, the successful Head Start program should be fully funded. While Head Start has provided comprehensive pre-kindergarten experiences to nearly 18 million children, this represents slightly less than half of the eligible children.

We must also give our children a fair share of the federal budget surplus. As the budget process continues, Congress should vote for a significant investment in quality child care and early funding. It should be a priority, for example, to see to it that every child has health insurance.

It is time for our nation to invest in our future - our children. If we neglect this most valuable resource, the strength of our country will be severely weakened. We must empower our children to step out of a world of bleakness. We must inspire them to be passionate about their individualism, creativity and intellectual energy. We must cultivate their talent and faith in the future.

Everyone in our society today will benefit from the improved education of our young people and closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Think about the problems when we read or see news of drugs, murders, poverty, hunger and poor public health. All of these ills would be lessened if we were determined to help our children drink in knowledge and flourish as human beings.

Only with the attitude of inclusiveness and a commitment to the fundamental value of each child can we truly achieve a society of real strength. The result would be a truly strong and great democracy.

Irving Pressley McPhail is chancellor of the Community College of Baltimore County.

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