- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Asya Wilson, with braids as long and thin as she is, is happy that she will enter the eighth grade at a popular charter school in Decatur, Ga., where her mother, Mei Mei Casswell, was finally able to get her enrolled.

But this is not the first time the shy, 13-year-old honor roll student has been enrolled in a charter school.

“By no means is she going to go to the public high school in the district that her mom lives in. It’s horrible; really, really bad,” said her father, Michael Wilson of Baltimore, to explain why his only child bounced back-and-forth from a public school to a now-defunct charter school to a public school and back to a charter school again.

She wasn’t getting the attention she needed in public [elementary] school for “a really good student.”

“It just didn’t pass the smell test,” Mr. Wilson said.

Her stepmother, Raina, said, “We’re always looking for the best programs for her.” This weekend she was helping Asya, who just completed computer camp at Morgan State University, pack to head off to historic Camp Atwater in Brookfield, Mass.

“But it shouldn’t be a situation where parents have to move all around to where they’re getting the best education for their kids,” Mr. Wilson said.

He noted that Asya’s mother has relocated a number of times seeking better schools in and around Atlanta.

Asya’s parents are in that group of American voters who believe education is the key to economic opportunity - not only for their children, but for the country. Education reform is their No. 1 priority during this presidential election cycle. However, they see that the much-needed reform of the nation’s schools is being overshadowed by rising gas prices, home foreclosures and foreign policy.

“Education is pretty close to the top of my priorities, right up there with world peace,” said Mr. Wilson, who pointed out that he is a first-generation college graduate. “But the candidates have not talked enough about it.”

An Associated Press poll on education conducted in mid-June found that half of Americans said the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world in education, and 62 percent said that the quality of schools in the U.S. is worse than 20 years ago. The respondents rated education among their top concerns after the economy and gas prices, but ahead of the war in Iraq, terrorism, the environment, immigration and health care.

A June Rasmussen poll also indicated that 90 percent of voters believe education is important in the next congressional election. A May Pew Research Center survey showed that education ranked as the No. 2 priority for voters this fall, ahead of taxes and Iraq.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, laid out the key points to his education-reform package at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on July 16. It includes support for school vouchers, teacher certification and merit pay.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said in his July remarks to the American Federation of Teachers, which is part of the Democratic core base, “You’ve shown that it is possible to find new ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them.”

Mr. Obama also supports residency programs, mentoring programs and service scholarships as ways to recruit new teachers. “We need to focus on fixing our public schools, not throwing up our hands and walking away from them,” he said.

Both candidates have said they support higher standards and accountability and will back reauthorization of President Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind Act. Mr. McCain would revise the $23 billion education initiative. Mr. Obama - who favors charter schools, but opposes vouchers for private schools - would increase resources for NCLB. He contends that Mr. Bush did not allocate enough funding.

One nonprofit, nonpartisan education-advocacy group, Strong American Schools (www.edin08.com), is not waiting for the presidential candidates to make education reform a higher priority on the campaign stump.

Last week, Strong American Schools - a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation - started a $5 million advertising campaign, “One Nation Left Behind,” targeted to voters in battleground states, including Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Iowa, to raise the critical and immediate need for education reform as the campaign progresses.

“This is our ‘man to the moon’ moment. If we don’t respond … we will lose our American way of life,” Marc Lampkin, executive director of Strong American Schools said last week. He’d like to see “a robust debate on how to improve the quality of teaching” so that every child gets a quality education, no matter where he or she lives and no matter what his or her parents’ income.

In addition to the organization’s campaign outreach efforts, which have included town-hall meetings on education, these ads lay out dire statistics about American students’ poor academic performance and their increasing failure to keep up with their international peers. Actress and author Jamie Lee Curtis is featured urging our nation’s leaders to “make education reform a priority.”

Those statistics do not include the troubling fact that nearly one-third of America’s teens do not finish high school.

Mr. Lampkin said “a lot’s at stake” because many American students are not prepared for work or college, where far too many must take remedial classes.

According to figures provided by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance, the high rate of high school dropouts, estimated at 1.2 million students per year, or one student every 26 seconds, “will cost the U.S. economy $329 billion in lost wages, taxes and work-force productivity over their lifetime.” But this failure is more than an economic issue, it’s a national security issue, says Gen. Powell, who along with his wife, Alma, established a dropout-prevention program this spring.

For its part, Strong America Schools is advocating three main strategies to strengthen K-12 public schools, including establishing higher standards, hiring effective teachers and increasing time and support for learning. The latter includes paying for longer school days and a longer school year.

But will those critical solutions come in time for Asya and her parents and countless others like them who don’t have time to wait on campaign promises?

“We’re learning as we go along that you have to get as much information on these schools as you can,” said Mr. Wilson.

And what Mr. Wilson wants from the next president is someone who will “find a better way to hold these schools accountable.”

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