8-18 Media, by 8-18 Media

Education issues take center stage at political conventions

As a country known in the past for its exceptional education system, the United States now is falling behind. Due to many factors, many regard the U.S. education system as broken. This idea was voiced many times at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
On the last night of the Democratic Convention, presidential nominee Barack Obama addressed the need to reform the country’s education plan.
“Now is the time to finally meet our moral obligation to provide every child a world-class education, because it will take nothing less to compete in the global economy,” he said.
In his acceptance speech on the final night of the Republican National Convention, presidential nominee John McCain called education a civil rights issue.
“Education is the civil rights issue of this century,” McCain said. “Equal access to public education has been gained. But what is the value of access to a failing school? We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice, remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers and help bad teachers find another line of work.”
Representatives from the Education Equality Project were at both conventions. This is a group of major city mayors, state and national education officials, educational reformers and many others concerned about the lack of equality in today’s educational system. Their goal is to help assure everyone, regardless of race and income level, has the opportunity to succeed in life by providing them with a sound education. To help ensure its mission is a success, the group is trying to get leading Democrats and Republicans to sit down and formulate ways we all can work together at improving education.
In Denver, James Mtume spoke on this issue. Mtume, who hosts the syndicated radio program “Open Line,” is especially critical of many Americans disinterest in education.
“Any society that does not deal with problems with education is like a person sitting in the middle of the road,” he said. “You get hit both ways by traffic.”
Civil rights and social justice activist Reverend Al Sharpton was in Denver and St. Paul on behalf of the Education Equality Project. His message was that this is the time for education reform.
“We have the right to make new adjustments, readjustments and be serious about this…Our conscience dictates it. This point in history mandates it,” he said. “Our children are not to be compromised. It’s time to close the gap. We’re the ones that can do it. Now is the time.”
One of the main concerns of the Education Equality Project is the increasing number of high school students who drop out. For example, according to a recent study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Michigan graduates thirty-three percent of black males and seventy-four percent of white males. In the Detroit schools, that number drops down to only twenty percent of black males and seventeen percent of white males. Statewide, 20,000 students drop out each year, including about eighty in the nine districts served by the Marquette-Alger Educational Service Agency.
Singularly, experts say preventing high school students from dropping out is the most effective way to reduce the number of impoverished people and to decrease the amount of unemployment in the future.
Stephanie Cosgrove, eighteen, of Cherokee (Iowa), was a delegate at the Democratic National Convention. She is an advocate of early intervention as a way of improving education of American students.
“For instance, when it comes to preschool, we could solve so many social issues if people had proper education early on and were developmentally up to par with where they should be,” she said. “The studies have shown that a child that has gone to preschool and had a good education from the start is less likely to be dependent (on society) or going through the system.”
Former Republican presidential candidate and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee had this take on the issue at the Republican convention.
“The biggest issue I think is making sure their education system works for the students, and that it’s built around them and not around the schools,” he said. “The education system ought to be about the students, not about the institutions.”
One target for reform on the educational front, especially at the Democratic National Convention, was the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.
“I think education is best left to the states and localities,” said Faylene Owen, a Michigan State University Trustee who was in Denver. “Federal government intervention in education has caused more problems than it has solved, like the No Child Left Behind Act, which continues to cause problems for our neighborhood schools. The best role for the federal government is to provide financial assistance for students and research funding for our institutions.”
Democratic Congressman Dale Kildee of Flint also was in Denver, and he too feels the Act needs revision.
“First of all, if a district misses (competence assessments) by an inch or a mile you get the same consequences,” Kildee said. “They restructure your school, sometimes close your school right down. I think we need to have some differentiating consequences. One of the big shortages or defects of No Child Left Behind are unfunded mandates. They put all these mandates upon the schools, but didn’t give them the money to carry them out. We have to fund it much better.”
Another issue discussed at length at both conventions that all agree is affecting the quest for a well-educated nation is the rising cost of college tuition. If students have not been hindered by the cost of school before, they will be in the near future if current trends continue. Owen, as a university trustee, is in the front line of setting tuition rates.
“As a country we are making a huge mistake by failing to invest more in higher education,” she said. “Our higher education system is one of our major competitive advantages over other countries…and we need to continue to invest in it to keep our advantage. It will pay off for the country if we invest now.”
Kildee said he believes one good way to assist students with the cost of going to college is to better fund Pell Grants, which are financial aid grants that do not have to be paid back by the student.
“The cost of textbooks and the cost of tuition has really gone up, yet the help we give to students has been frozen,” he said. “We really have to get down to ways of making education very, very quality but efficient in cost. I know individual young people who were forced to drop out of college because of their debt.”
Former NFL star Chris Carter, who was in St. Paul as a representative of the NFL and VISA, was promoting financial literacy among young people. He said the cost of higher education is putting young people far behind right from the start.
“Education is so expensive,” he said. “They already start their adult life so far behind and trying to catch up is very difficult. They all work through college, get a job, and they’re hustling for years and years to try to pay it off and stay ahead.”
Republican delegate Mike Knopf, seventeen, of Dubuque (Iowa) agrees that college costs are of concern.
“The biggest issue for my age group is probably college funding, because you and I both know that the four-year college degree is now turning into the five-year college degree, and student loans are getting harder to pay off,” he said. “So, (in this election) whatever the candidates can offer up for post-secondary schools is probably going to be a big sway issue.”
John Moen, sixteen of Eden Prairie (Minnesota) was at the convention and he too is concerned about college funding.
“I’m not in college yet, but when I do go, I know it’s going to cost a lot of money,” he said. “I know that my parents can afford college for me, but I know a lot of people cannot. I think the government should spend more time putting some of the money into funding education and not things that won’t be as helpful to America’s youth.”
Avery Platter, fifteen, of Apple Valley (Minnesota) had a different take on the issue while visiting the convention.
“I think that it’s not the government’s place to regulate how much colleges charge because that’s ‘Big Government’ and I do not agree with ‘Big Government,’” he said. “I think since the cost of everything is rising, we shouldn’t be too surprised that tuition costs are rising.”
Adam Kiihr, nineteen, of Charlotte (North Carolina), who was in St. Paul with the Junior Statesman Program, agreed with that viewpoint.
“If you put forth the effort and do well enough in school, you can get a scholarship and that can get you into college for little or no cost,” he said. “So, I don’t feel it’s the government’s responsibility to cover that.”
So in the end, education has become a major issue in this upcoming election. Both parties agree our country cannot thrive without a solid education for everyone, regardless of age or race.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was at the Republican Convention and was asked what young people can do for education reform.
“Don’t take the easy way out,” Spellings said. “I know that’s often easy to do, and often supported by grownups. Put academics before sports. Put academics before part-time work. Those sorts of things…hold yourself to high standards.”
—8-18 Media

Editor’s note: This story was written by the 8-18 Media team that traveled to the Democratic National Convention, including Emily Stulz, 16; Erin Bozek-Jarvis, 14; Eric Wagner, 14; and Ben Harris, 13; with contributions by the 8-18 Media team that traveled to the Republican National Convention made up of Andrew LaCombe, 18; Chelsea Parrish, 17; Hayley Maskus, 15; Connor Stulz, 14; and Maggie Guter, 11.

A conversation with Jack Kresnak
Jack Kresnak, president and CEO of children’s advocacy and public policy organization Michigan’s Children, was a part of a panel discussion on school dropouts that was held September 11 at Ishpeming High School.
The panel discussion was one of ten held around the state in advance of the October 20 Michigan Dropout Prevention Leadership Summit in Lansing. 8-18 Media interviewed Kresnak during his stop in Marquette County.

8-18 Media: What is your group trying to accomplish with these ten hearings around the state?
Kresnak: We are trying to get information from communities all across Michigan about the problem of kids dropping out of school. We plan on taking this information, including transcriptions of what everyone says, and we’re going to condense it into an executive summary. The transcripts and the summary will be provided to state legislators and policy makers in Lansing to form laws and regulations to address the problem of school dropouts.

8-18 Media: We understand that in 2007 there were eighty-three dropouts in the districts served by the Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency, and statewide about 20,000 dropouts; in what ways do these dropouts affect the economy?
Kresnak: Well, each dropout represents the loss of about $700,000 in state income taxes…they earn less money, so therefore they pay less in taxes. A lot of them also [have costs associated with them] because if they do drop out of school, they are more likely to become involved in teenage pregnancy or juvenile delinquency and then graduate into a life of crime, or dependency on society.

8-18 Media: What, typically, does dropping out of school mean for the student?
Kresnak: It pretty much means a lifetime of poverty. They will not be able to get ahead because they will not be able to earn enough of an income, a living wage, to support a family of their own. So, if they do have children of their own, those children are going to live in poverty, which is kind of perpetuating a cycle. We need to break that cycle of poverty, and the best way to do that is through education. The best way to get kids who are in low income families to complete school is to start early, before they even get to school, to get them ready so that they are ready to learn by kindergarten, and they are ready to read by third grade. The kids that come out of poverty typically have handicaps in which they don’t know words that kids from middle-class families do, and they find themselves falling behind in school and when they start falling behind, they eventually give up and they drop out.

8-18 Media: Do you think that the new graduation requirements are causing more kids to drop out…or do you think they will in the future?
Kresnak: I fear that it will, but I don’t want to back down on high standards for diplomas for kids today. We live in a completely different world than we lived in even five or six years ago. The requirements for good paying jobs in our world today are very high. We have to have kids that understand, math, science, as well as being able to read English, knowing a second language—all these things are critically important in order to be employed today. Ten years ago, you didn’t need to know all this in order to get a decent job that paid enough for you to support a family. These days you need these skills. We have to work harder.

8-18 Media: How do you think teachers, administrators and other caring adults can influence kids not to drop out?
Kresnak: The kids who drop out are consistently telling us that the reason they drop out is because they don’t have a solid connection to an adult that actually cares whether they succeed in school or not. It’s mentoring, connecting with kids. You can’t just let them go off on their own. We have to pull them back. We have to reach out to them. We have to encourage them in every way we can think of. Hopefully parents are fulfilling that role, but a lot of times they don’t. We need people from the community to step up and become mentors, to help this generation of children get through school and achieve the academic excellence that they need to do.
– 8-18 Media

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