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Barack Obama and John Boehner

On the heels of President Obama‘s self-professed “shellacking,” a renewed urgency for bipartisanship has emerged in Washington. One week later, a new study proves that the education gap between the races in the United States – specifically, the crisis facing young black men – remains as devastating as ever.
So why not immediately start working across party lines to rectify this, the greatest civil rights issue of our age?

“The nation’s young black males are in a state of crisis” is the opening sentence of the new study released on Tuesday by the Council of the Great City Schools. Emphasizing racial disparities beyond economic factors, the report highlights the catastrophic state of affairs facing an entire segment of the population.

Consider: Black children are twice as likely as whites to live in a home where no parent had full-time or year-round employment, and those aged 17 and younger are nearly 50% more likely to be without health insurance than white children.

Perhaps more striking is the fact that black boys drop out of high school at nearly twice the rate of white boys, and they compromised only 5% of all students in college in 2008 but were 36% of the total prison population.

This is a national calamity – which is arguably creating as large of a divide as institutionalized segregation ever did. Is the demise of the black man in effect a formula for the downfall of the entire race?

Last year, President Obama asked former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and me to join Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and conduct a national education tour. Visiting schools in cities and towns from coast to coast over a span of several months, we witnessed our crumbling system first-hand. Gingrich and I hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we put our differences aside, for we understood the depth of the crisis.

So now, as incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks of cooperation, perhaps he and other Republicans can cast aside party politics and begin to truly work with Democrats to rectify our education achievement gap.

That was the great promise of No Child Left Behind, passed with bipartisan fanfare in 2001 – but it has not done the job.

If we agree that education is the key to advancement, everyone – white and black, Republican and Democrat – should be disgusted by our current imbalanced state. In essence, we are saying to children born into poverty that they are doomed to remain in that state, no matter how hard they work.

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Without equal access to good education, children develop into adults without decent jobs and living wages. The end result is a spike in crime, a disproportionate rise in incarceration rates and a sense of hopelessness that lingers from one generation to the next.

So what might this bipartisan agenda look like?

Pre-K programs should be expanded and finally made available to all students across the country. Teachers should be truly held accountable and rewarded for good performance – important work that has begun under the Race to the Top competition. High-risk schools should be given additional funds to attract the best and brightest teachers.

Charter schools should serve not only as a choice for parents and students, but also as laboratories for new ideas and innovation; when an exemplary charter school is succeeding, we must spread its success to dozens if not hundreds more schools. And we should pledge that no child should ever forfeit attending college due to financial reasons.

Will all this take more resources? Possibly – though there may well be enough money in the system already, if we are prepared to reorient our priorities.

Regardless, we dare not fail.

As young black boys mature into black men with greatly diminished opportunities, so goes the black family structure. With the demise of the family structure, so goes the foundation for generations to come. It’s a vicious cycle. Let’s snap it before it’s too late.

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