In Browning’s play, she walks in a park, feeling the sun on her face, brushing her hands against flowers. “God’s in his heaven,” she tells herself. “All’s right with the world.”
But all is not right in Pippa’s world. There are no child labor laws and schooling is a luxury, granted to those who do not help to support their families. Still, the poet gives Pippa a taste of freedom, her own Labor Day.
A century and three-quarters later, we protect our children from seven day work weeks, but for each job opening in this country, four adults need hiring. We discourage young people from leaving the classroom. Yet only 21 states require students to stay in school until they are 18 or have graduated from high school.
Forty years ago, the United States claimed the highest number of high school and college graduates in the world, but no longer. Today, only 7 of 10 ninth graders will be handed diplomas. Forty-five percent of Hispanic and African-American students will not graduate. We hear daily speeches about unemployment in this country in these weeks before the November elections, and rightly so. Millions of Americans are out of work or underemployed.
And there is no quick fix for the plight of those who can’t find jobs. But as our politicians sermonize, we should not only be listening to their solutions for the jobless crisis, but also to their commitments to our children and their educations.
In a report on comparisons of a coming generation of workers in India, China and America, the Center for American Progress concluded India’s secondary school graduates will number five times as many as ours in five years. In less than 30 years, China’s college graduates will reach 200 million. In technology, math, engineering and science, those graduates will be double the number of Americans leaving school with the same degrees.
A confession: I have never taken an economics course, but two professors who have, Henry Levin at Columbia and Cecilia Rouse, teaching at Princeton, are offering a hypothesis with promise. What if the yearly school dropout rate could be cut in half, they write, down to 700,000 former students, and an equal number of graduates could enter the workplace at competitive salaries, 50 percent to 100 percent higher than Americans without degrees could command in their lifetimes? Those well-compensated workers would be unlikely to need public assistance, food stamps or tax-payer funded health care.
Rouse and Levin’s mega math concludes bringing home a degree would not only benefit graduates but chalk up $90 billion in savings each year in entitlement spending.
Their conclusion? We must keep our children in school. An added plus pegs education as a path to more financial stability in state governments, guaranteeing our country a stake in global competition.
Does this mean we will increase teachers’ salaries, encourage individualized studies and reduce class sizes?
Sadly, no. Money for education is stretched thin, but polls taken offer some encouragement. Sixty-two percent of those questioned said they were willing to pay additional taxes to improve the quality of urban schools and one-third of voters asked agreed the main problem schools face is lack of financial support.
In our zeal to reduce government spending, we must steer clear of candidates planning to slash public education funds. One hardhearted Senate hopeful from Missouri proposes the abolishment of the National School Lunch Program.
Children cannot learn when they’re hungry, and 22 percent of our nation’s own cope with poverty’s hunger every day. God may be in his heaven, but their lives are no walk in the park.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.