I live in a state with an educational system that is ranked 50th in the nation. 50th! To put it into perspective, Nevada is ranked 50th out of 52 states in a country that trails just about every other industrialized nation in education. That means that Nevada has some of the dumbest kids in the free world. A new study shows that 43% of Nevadans have "rudimentary literacy skills" meaning basic or below basic literacy. This means they can read street signs, fill out applications, and read the cover of cereal boxes but reading the warnings on medications or the material safety data sheets on hazardous jobs, any type of legal forms, or a newspaper or novel is pretty much out of the question. Of course, this is not the children's fault or even the adults who grew up in this screwed up system. The learning capacity of American children is no different than that of children in Tokyo, Holland, or Denmark. The difference is how they are taught and the emphasis on education.
I was watching a documentary on prisons in California and in it, one sociologist quoted a statistic that I found both sad and unsurprising. 80% of the inmates at one prison in Oakland can be traced back to the same three high schools. 80%! I'm not saying that all the blame is on the education system but certainly a larger portion than most people are willing to admit. The link between poor education and crime is certainly not insignificant or coincidental. There are other factors to be sure. Those three high schools were undoubtedly in low income areas and we know that crime rates go up as incomes drop as does alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and broken homes. None of which creates a great climate for learning and any one of which could lead to crime. If you live in a drug-infested crime-ridden neighborhood and are the product of a single-parent home with no father-figure, where there is spousal and/or child abuse taking place, the chances of you winding up joining a gang or engaging in some other criminal activity increase exponentially. Still, 68% of prison inmates are high school dropouts. It is hard to ignore this statistic. It is hard not to draw a causal link from poor education to incarceration.
In my own neighborhood I saw one friend after another turn to alcohol and then drugs. Crime was such a casual everyday thing that I remember walking into a store with my friends, stealing a bunch of TastyKakes, and walking back out while the place was being held up at shotgun point. Store robberies were so common that none of us were even scared or even paid the hold-up man much attention at all. We just saw it as an opportunity to steal candy. The robber even laughed and shook his head once he realized what we were up to as he went about emptying the cash register. This was normal in my neighborhood. This was life. Fights in which somebody wound up going to the hospital were normal. Drug dealers were normal. The occasional fatal shooting was normal. Only one of my friends had a father who lived with them. One out of more than a dozen friends. Normal.
I enjoyed fighting when I was young. If there was a fight going down I wanted to be a part of it. Fighting was my passion, still is. Only now, I do my fighting in the ring and I get paid for it. However, when my friends started stealing bikes, I did not. As Dr. Cosby stated in his speech, I didn't want to disappoint and embarrass my mother. She understood fighting because she had been a fighter herself when she had grown up on those same streets. But our family were not criminals. When my peers began stealing cars and all got police records, I wasn't among them. When they started selling drugs and walking around with wads of cash stuffed into their pockets, I declined their offers to join them in their new enterprise. When they all started carrying guns I still relied on my fists. When they started drinking, smoking, and using drugs, I remained clean and sober. To this day I have never smoked a cigarette or experimented with any type of illegal drug, not even marijuana, not even once.
See, I was in a good high school with prospects of going to a good college and one day getting a good job. I could see past my present environment to my future and I didn't want to screw all that up by going to prison, dying, becoming a drunk, or getting hooked on drugs. My friends had all gone to the neighborhood high school where prospects did not look as promising. Their future were scarier to them then the prospect of being shot down in the street or going to prison. They could see no way of getting into a good college or eventually getting a high-paying job. They could not see past the neighborhood and I do think that this was a failing of both parents and school. Their futures should have been as clear to them as mine was to me.
When I was in Junior high, teachers used to threaten us with the neighborhood high school the way you threaten kids with reform school or jail in other cities. "You keep acting up and you're going to wind up in Germantown High!" Because everyone knew that going to Germantown High or Martin Luther King High School meant that you would never rise any higher than you were. It was as powerful a threat as jail or reform school because for most it was the first step towards jail or reform school or dropping out and going back to the streets. Back in Philly, if you lived in the ghetto and weren't accepted into one of the many magnet high schools, than all hope was pretty much lost. Neighborhood schools were no different than the streets. Drugs, crime, violence, and apathy were your daily diet in the neighborhood schools. They were underfunded, understaffed, over-crowded, warzones, where you worried more about avoiding becoming a victim of violence than about getting good grades. Nearly every last one of my friends who went to Germantown High School now have criminal records and many are dead, on drugs, or currently incarcerated. The ones who avoided jail time have, predictably, rose no higher than their parents and, in many cases, sunk lower. There is definitely a causal relationship between quality of education, crime, and poverty.
My mother saw to it that, after elementary school, I never went to another school in our neighborhood. She lied and cheated and forged documents to get me into schools in other (White) neighborhoods and, had she not, I wonder if I'd have been able to resist the lure of easy drug money. I wonder if I'd have seen myself as having such a promising future if I had attended Picket Middle School with my friends from the neighborhood instead of Henry H. Houston with kids from Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill? If I had attended Germantown High School instead of Creative and Performing Arts High School would I have had the strength and courage to chase my dream of becoming a published author? I don't think so. I think I would still be stuck in that little neighborhood in G-town.
I read about schools cracking down on parents who lie about what district they live in. A school in Northern California even visits the homes on the school applications to make sure that the kids actually live where they say they live in order to keep parents from lying in order to get their kids better educations. But why should they have to lie? Why do schools like Picket Middle School, Germantown High School, and Martin Luther King High School even exist?
In America, the quality of the school in your district depends on the tax dollars that each district brings in. Poor neighborhoods bring in less tax dollars than more affluent neighborhoods so they have less money to spend on the schools. This situation will assure that lower-income largely minority children will always be at an educational disadvantage when compared to middle-class or upper-class children, which then assures that the prisons will be largely populated by these same lower-income minority children as they grow up with little or no education and therefore little or no hope.
What really pisses me off is that the answer is a simple one. The answer to this problem is one that takes place in many countries all over Europe. The same countries that kick our asses in test scores, scoring higher in English than our own English speaking children. Let the parents send their children wherever they want to send them and give the schools tax dollars based on the number of children rather than how much money those children's parents make. In Europe, the tax dollars follow the kids. It doesn't matter if your parents only make twenty thousand dollars a year and some other kid's parents make two hundred thousand a year. You both have the same amount of tax dollars attached to you and if a school wants to attract you to it it had better be of the highest quality because the parents now have a choice.
Free-enterprise is one of the founding principles of this country. Competition generates quality and controls cost. Why don't we apply this same principle to education? If schools had to compete for kids there would be better schools. If more kids meant more money for the schools then parents wouldn't have to lie and deceive in order to get their children into a good school. All the schools would be good or else no one would go there and they would perish.
The one thing that continues to surprise me about the current presidential elections is that none of the top candidates have given thought to this very obvious solution. If schools had to compete for kids and they received more tax dollars for more children there would not be the problems of overcrowded schools or schools with inadequate books and other supplies and materials, or schools with under-paid, under-qualified, apathetic and indifferent teachers. Those schools would go broke and go under.
When I was growing up teaching was a profession,a life-long profession. The same teachers that taught me were the same teachers who had taught my mother. Now, teaching is what you do when you first get out of college while you try to figure out what you really want to do with your life. Teachers are so underpaid that many of them work two jobs. They don't want to be in that classroom each day anymore than the kids. If the teachers were better paid, the schools better funded, and the kids there because they really wanted to be there as opposed to some other school, many of the issues I stated above would not exist and I have to believe that many of the criminals that currently crowd our prisons would not be there either. Let the schools compete for the kids and you will see an improvement. This is not a theory but a fact that has been tested and verified all over Europe.
Right now, in many cities across America, the streets are educating our children far better than the schools and so that is where many of our children feel the most comfortable. That is why the drop-out rate in some cities is over %50 in the lower-income minroity areas. It is a simple choice, build more and better schools and give the parents the option of what schools they can send their kids to, let the tax dollars follow the student and make the schools compete for those tax dollars, or build more prisons and let the tax dollars follow the inmate.