If you read at an average pace, it will take you four minutes to finish this column. By the time you’re done, approximately nine U.S. students will have dropped out of high school. That’s 1.2 million dropouts a year—dropouts who are qualified for only 10 percent of new jobs, are eight times more likely to be incarcerated and are 50 percent less likely to vote. When Texas projects how many prisons it will need 10 years from today, one of the data points it considers is the percentage of literate Texas fourth graders. The correlation is strong—six out of 10 American prison inmates are illiterate.
America’s educational problems permeate all aspects of our society—from economic growth to crime to national security. And that’s not a new, tantalizingly fresh concept I’ve just written. In preparing to write this column, I found so many websites with educational crisis statistics that my Google Chrome froze from an overload of tabs.
But here’s a potentially fresher point: The Republican Party needs to take on education as the issue it uses to rebrand itself. Not only is education reform absolutely vital for the future of our country, but it also makes strategic sense for a party perceived, validly or not, as out of touch and out of date. There’s been a lot of pontification since the losses last November about the future of the Republican Party. Education is one of my answers. It’s one of the answers that should be rolling off the tongues of every Republican politician in the country.
Let’s start with demographics. Much political science research and commentary has focused on demographic shifts to explain the Republican Party’s 2012 losses. Just this week Gallup published polling data showing Democrats enjoy a two-to-one identification advantage among Hispanics. Moreover, 50 percent of 18 to 34-year-old Hispanics, the age segment that accounts for almost half of the total U.S. Hispanic population, identify as Democrat or leaning Democrat. Combine this with 64 percent of blacks who identify as Democrat to the 5 percent of blacks identifying as Republican, and the Republican Party is faced with a stark reality. The party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan has a history of being a big-tent party. It needs to become one again.
Republican-led education reform can help open that tent. Among Hispanic fourth graders, only 17 percent score proficient or better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to 42 percent of non-Hispanic whites. What’s more, the high school graduation rate for Hispanics nationally is just 64 percent. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a black male born in 2001 has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime. For a Latino male, the odds are one in six. Put simply, U.S. schools are disproportionately failing our black and Hispanic children. The Republican Party must help these communities. It needs to loudly declare: “All children are born with an inherent potential to succeed, and every single American child deserves a chance to achieve that success.”
But above all, education reform is intrinsically linked to the American dream. To me, the two are inseparable. When a child dies a metaphorical death at an early age, with his educational opportunities withering away at the hands of a hopelessly failing school, this is the death not only of a child’s intellectual development but also of that child’s dreams. I stated earlier that 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year—that’s 1.2 million American dreams dashed upon the rocks of cruel fate.
The Republican Party needs to convey to the electorate that it’s the party of the American dream—for rich and poor alike. It must demonstrate a genuine compassion for the plight of poverty—a compassion that resonates among large swathes of Republicans but is simply not being translated into public perception by its leaders. Education reform is one way to translate it. The party needs to say: “We believe the American dream is about expanding opportunity—and one of the best ways to expand opportunity is to expand education.”
In closing, you’ll notice I have not proposed the actual policies I think Republicans should advocate for. That was not my intention in writing this. I have a limited number of words, but there are plenty of ideas and proposals available from think tanks, citizens and policy wonks. I encourage you to read them, and I hope the comments section might bear some of those ideas out.
My intention in writing this column was to convey a cry of desperation to my fellow Republicans. The American educational system is squandering the potential of too many of our children. Democrats have failed to provide a sufficient answer—Republicans can provide one. It’s good political strategy—but far more importantly it is simply the right thing to do. It is a transgression of the highest order that an 8-year-old’s fate might be decided by her zip code. By the end of the next sentence, remember that nine students have dropped out of high school. Now Republicans, let’s do something about it.
Daniel Strunk is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Thursday.