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SIMMONS: Government’s not the ‘village’

- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2010

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

Each year, an estimated 1.3 million youths drop out of high school, according to the advocacy group America's Promise Alliance. The White House puts the number at 1.2 million. Whatever the exact number, many dropouts end up in jail and prison, some languish for years like lost souls, and others struggle to become productive citizens. Now is the time for solutions.

President Obama wants to lay on hands.

On Monday, the White House announced a plan geared toward stemming the dropout rate. But don't be fooled. The plan, called School Turnaround Grants, comes with lots of strings attached. It tethers $900 million from Washington to local districts that carry out one of four approaches, which range from firing a school's staff to closing the school.

It's a typical Washington response, and the president delivered typical liberal rhetoric as part of the package.

"This is a problem we can't afford to accept or ignore," the president said Monday. "The stakes are too high - for our children, for our economy, for our country. Its time for all of us to come together - parents and students, principals and teachers, business leaders and elected officials - to end America's dropout crisis."

The Obama turnaround plan will get a wink from Republicans and fiscal conservatives because it has the essence of accountability. But here again, don't be fooled.

"Parents" must be front and center, as mother, author and missionary Evelyn Bethune pointed out the other day.

The granddaughter of Bethune-Cookman University founder Mary McLeod Bethune, she lamented in a speech the blood and sweat of ancestors who wanted schooling but were denied and the fact that today, schooling is taken for granted.

"To have open access to education, we should relish that, cherish that, because people gave their lives for that to happen," New Jersey's Cape May County Herald quoted her as saying.

"We don't," she said, "push education like we used to."

The dropout numbers bear that out. But what's being done to curb them?

Well, there are all manner of government programs, school-reform programs and business and community programs out there. Some work, some don't.

The government programs are on the "don't" side of the ledger because of their one-size-fits-all approach. Indeed, schoolchildren these days are treated no differently from prison inmates. The little ones get three hots and a cot, and the older students in urban schools are considered dangerous (greeted not by a familiar smiling face when they enter the schoolhouse but by metal detectors).

Some programs fall on both sides of the ledger because of low expectations that label kids and schools "at-risk," "low-performing," "special education," etc.

Ms. Bethune summed the prospects up this way: "[W]hat gets poured into them or not poured into them determines the direction they take."

She suggested simple things, such as, "Make them read." She also urged families to return to what she rightly called "old standards."

Relabeling them "traditional values" is OK. "Family values" works, too.

But whatever you rename them, don't think "it takes a village to raise a child."

The liberals, socialists, Hillary Rodham Clinton and many, many others have twisted the proverbial context to mean "it takes a government entity or government program to raise a child."

That's so unfortunate. The true meaning of "it takes a village" refers to a child's biological family, his and his family's true friends and the elders of his community.

Colin L. Powell, who stood alongside Mr. Obama on Monday at the dropout announcement, has, with his wife, Alma, invested much time and humanitarian stock in battling the nation's dropout problem, and much of their work is channeled through America's Promise. Much of the media coverage of the event focused on the numbers and the group's goal to ensure that 90 percent of today's fourth-graders graduate on time (compared with the current 70 percent). But it was Mr. Powell's admonishment, if you will, that was striking. His characterization was "moral" imperative.

How right he is.

c Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.