Politicians, academic reformers and executives met in Washington to discuss educational solutions to economic problems last week against the backdrop of Adrian M. Fenty ouster as mayor, partially due to the rough reformation of the capital city’s school system.
Major figures in the educational policy debate such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gathered at the Congressional Black Caucus annual legislative conference to talk about how education can be used to increase economic prosperity.
“People don’t have the requisite job skills and training to even qualify for the jobs that are going to exist in the future,” said the CBC’s chair, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who emphasized the role of community colleges and vocational schools in developing skills.
“So what we have to do is provide for any jobs program, workforce training and job training initiatives so that our community and our people can qualify for the jobs we are going to create.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Oakland, Calif., part of Lee’s district, was 10.8 percent as of July 2010 compared to 9.5 percent for the rest of the country. There are two community colleges, Laney and Merritt Colleges, and seven accredited colleges and universities.
“It’s so important that people have the knowledge and skills and an aiding degree or certificate or the qualifications to be able to work the good paying jobs with good benefits,” Lee said.
Culture of Knowledge
The culture of teaching and learning as it pertains to children of color was a key topic along with investment in the educational system.
“We don’t have a system where kids have books at home and develop a love for reading at home, and others have their own libraries at home,” said Ursula Davis, an educational consultant based in New York. “It’s the haves and the have nots in so many instances, and it is very unfortunate.”
Arne Duncan, who has been President Barack Obama’s key salesman of the Race to the Top program, said complacency plays a role in attitudes toward education in the United States.
“We as a country have lacked courage,” Duncan said. “We have been very complacent and just been content to see children of color fall by the wayside and not say the children deserve better, they can do better and we must give them chances.”
In Washington, some residents are particularly concerned about chances for children in the district’s poorest area, Ward 8, where the average monthly unemployment rate in 2009 was 26.5 percent, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. That’s more than twice the district’s rate of 10.2 percent, reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Half of unemployed D.C. residents had not attended college, and 71 percent of the unemployed were black.
Road to College
On another panel, Howard University President Sidney Ribeau said the public needs to change how it judges educators while reforming the educational system. Others on the panel and in the audience called for more focus on guidance counselors and the roles they play in college preparation.
“If you don’t have a family that’s very supportive and you don’t have a guidance counselor that’s very supportive, you have a very hard time negotiating some of the elements to get into a college as well as the financial piece,” Davis said. “You, just in many instances at 16, 17 and 18, are not able to do it.”
She said the financial aid process was simpler, and tuition was generally cheaper when she attended Hampton University, a historically black university in Southern Virginia. Websites for the Princeton Review and Financial Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) are among the tools available to guide potential post-secondary students through the application and funding process.
Davis said in her experience as an educational consultant, she encountered situations where parents are busy providing basic needs and find it difficult to help children navigate that process.
Lee said the dialogue on educational reform and funding must proceed beyond the conference to improve the K-12 and post-secondary education systems.
“It’s very important to go home and talk to members of Congress and your representatives and tell them to support funding for education rather than wars, building prisons and bombs, because this is so critical in terms of our priorities.”