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Avoiding the Obvious in Education Reform

The always provocative Chester Finn Jr. outdid himself in arguing that education has the potential to "make the United States a better place to live for a long time to come" ("The Issue Left Behind," The Weekly Standard, Feb. 11). He maintains that how the Republican party addresses education reform will determine not only its future but that of the nation itself.

Finn lists five ways to achieve that goal. But what he surprisingly omits is the importance of the role that poverty plays in educational outcomes. He says that it's time "for the party of Lincoln to craft a new platform for itself." I can't think of a better place to begin than with strategies to eliminate America's notoriety for being No. 1 in the industrialized world in the rate of childhood poverty. (UNICEF says Mexico has that dubious distinction, but I don't consider it to be industrialized.)

It's more than coincidence that the quality of public schools was at its zenith when labor unions were strongest during the 1950s. When workers earned a decent living by virtue of their membership in robust unions, they were able to provide their children with the essentials that are indispensable for learning. Child poverty rates were nowhere near the 20 percent that exists today. Even though productivity has increased by more than 80 percent over the last 30 years, wages have remained effectively flat for 80 percent of Americans ("Not all jobs are equal," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 24, 2012). That means too many parents are hard pressed to make ends meet.

Curiously, Finn makes no mention of this data in urging the GOP to redefine itself. Instead, he wants what amounts to regression. Robert Reich made that point when he wrote that the party seeks the America "we had in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century" ("The Rebirth of Social Darwinism," OpEd News, Dec. 1, 2011). Poverty is not destiny, but it creates daunting obstacles. There will always be some young people from the most impoverished and chaotic backgrounds who can succeed in school, but they are outliers.

If Finn genuinely wants a better America, he needs to ask himself what the GOP is doing to rectify the "wild inequities and social cruelties" that characterize the U.S. today. The gap between the richest and poorest continues to widen. Everything else is a distraction.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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