Education and the final plantation | Walter Backstrom

During the 1860s, slavery was legal, and teaching blacks to read was illegal.

Fast forward to 2009: African American children drop out of school 50 percent of the time, or 1 out of 2.

According to the National Center for Education statistics, by the fourth grade, black and Latino students read and comprehend at the level of a white first-grader.

High school graduates live seven years longer than high school dropouts. The unemployment rate for African American dropouts is 80 percent. Reading and math scores improve by 50 percent with high levels of parental participation.

Who's responsible for this ongoing tragedy? We can blame the usual suspects: White people, George Bush, Republicans and Al-Qaida, just to name a few.

I wonder what Dr. Martin Luther King would say. Would he wonder if he sacrificed his life for this? He would remind us that during the days of slavery, black parents did everything they could to make sure their children could read. During the days of slavery, black people had a vision: To be free so that their children could learn.

I wonder where the vision is now. There is a segment of kids in the black community whose vision is to be rapper, gangster or basketball player. That's not much of a vision.

If you're a black kid who is a good student and respectful to your elders, you are accused of "acting white." What foolishness this is!

It makes me angry that we have an educational system mired in mediocrity in Washington state. While other states are racing to the top, we are racing to the bottom.

We are 43rd in graduation rates, so as we race to the bottom, we don't have far to go. Thank God for Mississippi because they're worse than us.

What has always baffled me is that we know what we need to do. But we continue to wring our hands in disbelief. The education establishment talks about the progress we have made. That is true. We were 37th in graduation rates, and now we are 43rd. Now that's progress.

If we continue along this path of progress, we will be 49th fairly soon. Don't forget, there's always Mississippi.

The politicians' answer is another commission. The reality? More smoke and more mirrors. The big loser? The children.

The unions' response is more money, more strikes and more "respect." The parents' responsibility? "Just give me the clicker, and I'll get back to you."

Dr. King and other courageous people sacrificed their lives to help remove the shackles of racism. However, there is a different set of shackles today. The shackles are made up of low expectations, lack of vision, lack of fathers and a society that just doesn't care.

I didn't vote for President Obama, in part because he is for big government, higher taxes, and is pro-choice. However, when it comes to changing the K-12 system, count this conservative squarely in his camp.

It is not just enough to criticize. You must offer an alternative vision. I envision longer school days, restoring art and music programs, and having every school called a "No excuses school." Welcome parents into schools not just as fundraisers or chaperones. Welcome fathers into schools. Allow for alternative education certification: Because of the union rules, Bill Gates cannot teach a computer science class in Washington state.

These are just a few suggestions. Admittedly, I am not an expert. But I bet I can do better than 43rd. How long must our children wait? Does no one understand the fierce urgency of now?

One more thing: We are better than Mississippi.

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