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Let’s address poverty, education

In the aftermath of the 2010 congressional elections, highlighted by historic Republican gains, the media focus turns to what Republicans in Congress plan to do about such pressing issues as job growth, spending and taxes.

Yet there are two other under-reported issues that Republicans, Democrats and all Americans cannot afford to ignore — poverty and education. These challenges cry out for redress, as evidenced by these jarring statistics:

– Barely half of African-American and Latino students graduate from high school. African-American students graduate at 51 percent and Latinos at 55 percent, while their white counterparts graduate at (a still lower than optimal) 76 percent. (This is reported in the gripping new documentary film “Waiting for Superman,” a must-see for anyone interested in education reform.)

– A record 3.7 million Americans fell into poverty in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The out-of-wedlock birth rate is 40 percent and the African-American out-of-wedlock birth rate is 72 percent. When the so-called “War on Poverty” began in 1965, that birth rate was just 7 percent.

“Waiting for Superman” notes that in Pennsylvania a whopping 68 percent of prison inmates are high school dropouts. The state spends $33,000 a year on each prisoner, and the total cost of the average prison term is $132,000. By contrast, the average private school costs $8,300 per student per year. So for the same amount, Pennsylvania could have sent a prison inmate to a private school from kindergarten through 12th grade — and still had more than $24,000 left for college.

The story is the same in every state.

The highly acclaimed movie notes that far too many public schools contain lazy or incompetent teachers protected by teacher unions, so these schools are cranking out subpar students.

Students do better where there is a choice — and many parents and students are choosing better public charter schools, magnet schools and, of course, private schools where good teachers are often rewarded on merit and where classroom discipline is enforced.

Despite this betrayal of America’s young people, growing numbers of taxpayers, parents and students are demanding reform. It is a movement that cuts across all political, socioeconomic and racial lines.

Congress and state legislatures must assist them, and newly ascendant Republicans ought to be in the forefront in reforming poverty laws and education.

Republicans ought to be leaders in re-addressing the poverty challenge. The Heritage Foundation notes that taxpayers have shelled out $15.9 trillion on means-tested welfare programs since 1964. They found that, after adjusting for inflation, welfare spending is 13 times higher today than it was in 1965 (this is a growth more rapid than Medicare, Social Security and defense). Yet even after decades of this massive spending, politicians of both parties failed to address the collapse of marriage — which is the root cause of child poverty. So it’s time to redirect and reform.

How can conservatives and Republicans accomplish this?

My good friend Robert Woodson, who is president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, speaks to these issues well. He started the center in 1981, and I agree with his take on dealing with issues in the social and educational economy.

“The word enterprise is in our name because I believe strongly that the principles that operate in a market economy ought to operate in the social economy,” Woodson says. “Entrepreneurs invest in competition and innovation. Our social economy is just the opposite. The same institutions that were around 40 years ago continue to get funding. There is no competition. They call competition in the social economy ‘duplication of effort.’ You do not get rewarded for improving things. You get rewarded for the number of people you have served. The same is true in the educational economy.

“As we know our market economy is very different. It has competition. McDonald’s vs. Burger King, or AT&T vs. Verizon. It also has innovation — Google, iPhones and going from 8-track to CDs. (If you are under 30 and reading this, you probably don’t remember 8-tracks). These things represent innovation and competition.”

Woodson goes on to state, “There are perverse incentives. If I am an administrator of a social welfare agency and I have 200 kids to serve and my budget is $2 million, I can come back to the Congress and say, ‘Now I have 400 kids, I need my budget doubled.’ ”

In the government’s social and educational economy and the elected officials who support them, they don’t ask which problems are solvable, but rather which problems are fundable.

As Republicans and Democrats move forward, we will all need to tighten our belts.

Our resources are limited to the point we have to use innovation, competition and think transformation.

We need more taxpayers, not more taxes, and we need to create ways to make our citizens resources, not a drain on resources.

J.C. Watts (JCWatts01@jcwatts.com), chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group, is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. He writes twice monthly for the Review-Journal.

 

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