A Divided Society

The discrimination of the future will not be based on race, but on education. Those without education will find no place in our highly sophisticated, technical society.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The United States is fast becoming a divided society. We are doing violence to the notion of an America where everyone is given a chance to reach his or her potential and contribute to society. Throughout our history we have fought an overt racism which excluded non-whites from the advantages of an upwardly mobile society. Through our legislative and judicial institutions we have established a more just America.

We are now confronted with a more insidious, but no less destructive, pathology which is eating away at the very foundation of the social fabric of our nation. We are rapidly becoming a two-tiered society where the well-educated can look to a more prosperous, healthier, joyful, and interesting future for themselves and their children, while the students who are forced to attend failing schools can anticipate hopelessness, despair, and poverty.

In calling for "educational excellence for all," Rudy Perpich, former Governor of Minnesota and the 1988-89 Chair of the Education Commission of the States, noted:

As many as one-third of the nation's 40 million school-aged children are at risk of either failing, dropping out or falling victim to crime, drugs, teenage pregnancy or chronic unemployment. What is even more troubling is that, despite the wave of educational reform that is sweeping the country, the evidence suggests that the gap between the educational "haves" and the "have-nots" is widening.

As Americans, we must come to grips with the fact that our present educational practices are contributing to the creation of a permanent underclass in our society. Our goal must be no less than equal access to educational excellence for all our children.

Students who are at risk of dropping out don't need a lecture – they need an alternative.

Because of the increasing demand for specialized skills in our economy, the educational haves and have-nots are fast becoming employment haves and have-nots. To a large extent, this polarization follows racial lines and portends devastating consequences for the future of our nation.

As trade barriers have been reduced and we have witnessed a dramatic increase in international commerce, the American consumer has been given the opportunity to purchase low-cost consumer goods manufactured in foreign countries that were previously only made in our country. While this phenomenon has spurred world economic growth, it has had a decidedly negative effect on those people who lack an educational foundation and technical skills.

Workers from Mexico and the Philippines who make several dollars a day are producing consumer goods which we import. They, in turn, purchase products and services from us which require increasingly sophisticated technical and analytical skills and specialized knowledge. Those people who pursue higher education in our country find that they are rewarded with large salaries and good benefits. Those who do not pursue higher education or specialized technical training increasingly find that they have bought a ticket to a life mired in poverty and despair.

The only credible solution is to invest in the education of our people. We simply must reach out to the poor of our land and let them know that they cannot afford to drop out of school. Our schools must be excellent, innovative institutions which inspire hope, foster discipline, and instill in all a desire for learning.

We must begin the process of renewal now. Already the evidence of the widening gap in family incomes threatens the social fabric of our society. Today, the top one-fifth of the U.S. population receives approximately fifty percent of the national income or about the same as all the rest of the population combined. This income differential will accelerate because the people who pursue college and university degrees often marry people with post-secondary educational degrees. While the uneducated struggle to make ends meet and watch inflation eat away at their purchasing power, the educated among us work in comfortable surroundings, live in relative luxury, and are able to afford unique vacations experienced by the poor only through their inexpensive Japanese television sets.

The educational elite cynically attributes the failures of the students to their "poor family structure" when, in reality, many parents are uninvolved because this same power structure has brazenly denied them involvement in the most personal, important, and fundamental decision possible in regards to their children's education – the kind of school they will attend.

The poor are forced to suffer the ultimate indignity by being accused of not caring for their children, of being irresponsible and uncommitted by the very institutions and educational power structure which denies them the right to choose the best school for their child and which strips them of their parental authority in being able to remove their children from educational chaos and select another school which will inspire, uplift and provide an authentic education.

Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, headquartered in Washington D.C., argued in 1989 that:

Educational choice should be a fundamental right of all parents. Low-income parents want exactly what more affluent parents want – good education for their children to help them become independent and productive citizens.

The affluent already have many choices because they can pay tuition or choose where they want to live and where they want to send their children to school. So, when we talk about enhancing choice, we are simply talking about giving working class and poor people the same opportunity to choose schools and services for their children.

If we continue to allow children who are born into poverty to fail to receive the kind of education that will help them reach their potential and contribute produc­tively to our economy and society, then we will surely cease to be a peaceful and prosperous country in the 21st century.

It is specifically among those who daily experience the destructive effects of a poor education who will do all in their power to ensure that their offspring have more auspicious opportunities. This is what one of the most articulate black educational leaders spoke of when she testified in 1987 before a Presidential Commission. Joan Davis Ratteray, President of the Institute for Independent Education in Washington D.C., spoke for millions who have no voice in the public square when she said:

As an African-American, I recognize that government support has been the means by which we and other minority groups have dismantled many legal barriers that have excluded us from the mainstream. In many respects, the federal government has been a "savior." But I also recognize that when government gives, it also takes away. One of the things it has taken away is choice .... Most Black Americans have only one "choice": inner city schools that have become the dregs of the nation's education system.

The Institute for Independent Education ...found hundreds of independent neigh­borhood academic schools meeting the needs of minority group youth from the upper, middle and low-income families all across the nation .... During my tour of forty such independent schools across America, I did not learn about absenteeism, a lack of motivation to learn, or discipline problems. I did not hear about drug traffic in the hallways or see uniformed policemen. What I found ...(were schools) proud of the results they have achieved, turning around children that others have labeled "underachieving." These independent schools represent the power of parental choice. They exist because quality education is not just a luxury for the well-to-do. They challenge public schools to be competitive without the infusion of larger and larger sums of tax dollars. They are islands of excellence, and some of them are models for innovation in public institutions.

Because so many of our inner city young people are not given the opportunity to attend the kind of school that Joan Davis Ratteray speaks about, and instead are forced to attend schools which are the breeding ground of failure, we see increased numbers of our best young people turn to violence and crime.

The homicide rate among young men in the United States is four to 73 times the rate in other industrialized nations according to researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics; 4,223 American men from 15 to 24 years of age were killed in 1987, a rate of 21.9 per 100,000. The rate for black men in that age group was 85.6 per 100,000, an increase of 40% since a low in 1984.

For young black men, however, Michigan was the most treacherous state, with a homicide rate of 232 per 100,000. While California was the most risky for young white men, with a rate of 22 per 100,000, this is still less than one-tenth the rate for blacks in Michigan.
– New York Times, 6-27-90, "U.S. Is By Far the Leader in Homicide."

In order to remove from our streets the products of our failed educational institutions, Michigan is in the process of building an unprecedented number of new prisons. From 1984 to 1991, the State of Michigan will build 24 new prisons and will increase the number of prison beds from 12,780 to 32,000 at a cost to the taxpayers of $900 million. When all of these new prison beds are available to house inmates, our prison system will still be overcrowded and will not be able to handle all of our prisoners according to the Department of Corrections.

In a paper done for the Citizens Research Council, the former Director of the Michigan prison system, Perry Johnson, and the former Director of Research for Corrections, William Kime, report that:

This rapid growth in prison population is without precedent. It has not been equaled – not in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, or California – not anywhere – not at any time. We can find no record in the Western world of any other increase in criminal prisoners of this proportion in such a short time.

According to the columnist Cal Thomas (Lansing State Journal, May 28, 1989), we are incarcerating a higher percentage of our population than any other country in the world except the Soviet Union and South Africa. Our national rate of incarceration is increasing fifteen times faster than the population and the increase in our state greatly exceeds the national pace.