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The devastating government inaction that characterized Hurricane Katrina is present in our educational system today. Realizing the vision of equal opportunity requires coordinated action on three fronts: the school, the home, and the community. To deny the severity of the problem in any one of these spheres is a recipe for defeat. One hundred and twenty years after Plessy v. Ferguson and sixty three years after Brown v. Board, schools in America are more separate and unequal than ever. In some zip codes in America, kids can walk safely to and from school. In others they can not. In most zip codes in America, most children have stable, safe homes. In others not.
This triple tragedy is a daily but silent and largely ignored Katrina. It is a catastrophe of unrealized potential.
There are many reasons why this perfect storm of unsafe streets, second-rate schools, and unstable homes gets so little attention from the media and politicians.
The media feeds on the new and the exceptional. This daily Katrina is neither. Politicians focus on voters and money. Kids don’t vote and have little if any money. Put differently, these children are the collateral damage of the decision to prioritize other things—whether reducing economic inequality, shrinking the government, or fighting climate change. Episodically, leaders of both major parties—from Barack and Michelle Obama to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney—have spoken of this problem, but neither party has given this tragedy the priority it deserves.
What might a three front strategy look like?
The first job of government is to provide physical safety for its citizens. A state that fails to do so is a failed state. In most zip codes in America, children feel safe walking to school, walking to the playground, and walking back home. By contrast, other zip codes are war zones in which parents and children fear for their lives on a daily basis. In these places, the US is failing. It is impossible to focus on physics or chemistry if you are worried about being stabbed in the bathroom or being shot on the way home.
There can be no more egregious violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The well-intentioned war on drugs has turned many zip codes into battlefields—just as Prohibition did in the 1920s. If there is one lesson of American history, it is that those years were a mistake, a mistake it took the nation 13 years to reverse. The Second Prohibition has ravaged neighborhoods across America and countries around the world for 45 years. How much longer shall we collectively deny the devastating costs of this failed experiment?
In many zip codes in America, children have great public schools with fabulous academic, arts, and athletics programs, and schools with great teachers, high standards, and high expectations. In others they do not. This is unacceptable. This is not equal protection of the laws. We need a constitutional amendment laying out, in very specific terms, the meaning of equality of schools: rigorous programs across the curriculum; quality of instruction; and academic, athletic, artistic, or behavioral standards.
Education begins at home. The first few years of life are critical to cognitive development. The stability of home life is key to long term social mobility. Family structure matters. This is the clear message of research from the left, right, and center: from Kathy Edin, Robert Putnam, and scholars at the Brookings Institution to Charles Murray, Heather MacDonald, and researchers at the American Enterprise Institute. The economic, cultural, and political causes of the disintegration of the American family must be acknowledged and addressed. We need legislation that reduces the economic incentives for unready parenthood and promotes parenthood education, including abstinence, and that provides universal access to all reproductive serves, including Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives, which have been shown to drastically reduce unwanted pregnancies.
A three front war needs a three front strategy. We need to stop denying that the war on drugs is an abysmal failure. We need to stop pretending that Brown v. Board fixed educational inequality. We need to stop sweeping the family structure crisis under the rug.
John M. Muresianu ’75, GSAS ’82 is a member of the Adams House Senior Common Room.
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