By Tom Casey
So much of what ails education, the primary focus of this column, is rooted in our failure to properly provide equal opportunity (or attention) to all kids. Particularly obvious in today's society is this increasing inequality resulting from the growing divide between rich and poor, with the shrinking middle class a clear indicator.
The former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has raised a red flag about these real concerns in a most revealing documentary, Inequality for All. Reich is a recognized and astute economist. He makes a strong case for the fact that economic gains that we make have gone to the very top in an economy that is barely growing.
No better time for a sensitive, alert, visionary and united government to respond for the betterment of its society, right? Not a chance, with Washington being the self-centered and inefficient basis of our decision-making. As Reich points out, "In the last 150 years, every time we get to a point of inequality close to what currently exists, reformers stepped in to save capitalism from its own excesses. Today, with our disease of divisive politics in Congress, we have lost sight of the one big issue that unites us all."
Sure, corporate profits are at record highs, but the business priority appears to be expending production abroad for new consumers rather than using profits to build increased capacity in the United States.
Some of the fallout? First, cuts in spending and lack of priority to preserving a basic American tenet -- educational equality. Also, an increasing number are living at poverty levels needing resources to survive and create a good life.
Just ask my good friends at Strategies for Children, an early childhood policy and advocacy nonprofit who see support for their effective K-3 literacy program compromised. This is at a time when 43 percent of third-graders are not proficient in reading, according to the recent MCAS release. Reading scores at that level have not increased since 2001. Those who fall into the low income MCAS reporting category had a 65 percent lag rate in reading standards at grade 3.
It's a well-established research fact that struggling readers are four times less likely to graduate -- and each dropout costs the Massachusetts taxpayer about $349,000. More important is the lost opportunity the dropout faces.
Just ask Thomas Water, the new Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, how many students lost a preschool enrollment this year, the cause being a financial cut in necessary funding.
And consider the demise of what is referred to as "need-blind admissions" in some of our elite colleges and universities. This idealistic policy of making admissions decisions without considering a student's ability to pay allowed many deserving but needs kids to attend the elite schools (Tufts, Wesleyan, Williams, MIT, Cornell, University of Virginia, etc.). If admitted, the schools would make it financially feasible for a student to attend based on these schools' previous sizable endowments.
But with our nation's financial crisis, these endowments took a hit and with that the funding for a needy but deserving student to walk those hallowed halls went with it with the loss of need-blind admission policy. The staggering $26,000 average student loan debt for other private schools' attendance is eliminating that as an option also.
Each of these students, whether lagging in reading skills, needing preschool or head start encouragement/support or those worthy of our best colleges (but not rich enough), should be given the chance to attain an education that is not a financial burden or obstacle.
Our federal government issued a recent study on the structural deficiency of bridges throughout our country requiring billions of dollars to fix. Let them be advised that there is one bridge -- that which spans the years of 3-21, from childhood to young adulthood -- which has a "critical fracture" not allowing all to traverse equally.
We must repair this "bridge over troubled waters."
Tom Casey is a consultant and retired educator living with his wife, Kathy, in Lancaster.