Back in 1996, Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander pledged to become the "education president," a promise George W. Bush stole for his pack of lies, I mean, his campaign. Surrounded by educators this week, I find myself wondering whether, since this has proven woefully inadequate, an education dictator would do better -- and what would such a potentate do.
The problems are well-known. Only half of all high school graduates go to postsecondary education. Their incomes and general well-being are stagnating. Only half of those who go to college complete four years. Yet all the future jobs demand higher and higher order skills.
Meanwhile, high percentages of youths go straight from dropping out to jail, at enormous social and fiscal cost.
Education would seem to be the natural ticket out of poverty and stagnation for such young people, yet the schools can't manage the job. Why?
Part of it is declining standards.
The New York Regents exams, once the hallmark ticket to a coveted high school diploma are no longer the obligatory for graduation in the Empire State. Students who don't make the grade, can go for a "local diploma," which community colleges accept. While the Regents require minimum scores of 65 percent to pass, the local diplomas accept 55 percent.
This is a way to pad the graduation rates, which fell precipitously during the 1980s, when a B-film actor presided over the first effort to bankrupt educational and social programs. I'm told that half the schools in New York would be closed if Regents were the only ticket to graduation, as they must graduate a certain percentage of the student body by law.
But it's not just that.
Kids who are hungry, who are brought up by guardians rather than parents in prison or imprisoned by addictions, who know no one who has a conventional job and thrives, who must toughen up before their time -- such kids are half defeated before they take their first step into a school.
Only a sustained, intensive, broad-based frontal campaign to address the entire network of social problems that are creating a permanent underclass -- and thus undoing the foundation of democracy -- can hope to succeed.
Here's where the ancient Roman notion of a dictator, someone drafted by the Senate during an emergency to literally dictate what everyone should do, seems a plausible answer. Not a tyrant, mind you, a dictator. Someone appointed as immovably as a federal judge, say, to see things through the resolution of the problems decisively, persistently, immune to fashion and citizen fatigue.
What should such a person do?
1. Federalize education. There is no rhyme or reason to the patchwork of 16,000 school districts, which operate as if the world of the mind stopped at the county, city or district line. No other advanced nation has as balkanized a system.
2. Consolidate bureaucracies so the bulk of the funds can be directed strategically at problems, so the doers in the system are left alone to do their best.
3. Connect educational systems to community and disciplined civilian work agencies and programs with modern apprenticeships and practice-based credentials.
4. Require all university students to serve for one year in literacy and educational support activities as a condition of graduation with a bachelor's degree.
5. Coordinate education with child welfare and family economic self-sufficiency programs, so that enrollment in school becomes the gateway to all necessary services to ensure the well-being of every American or immigrant from birth to 18.
Put together, the school districts, states and the small present federal contribution add up to more than $400 billion a year. These funds need only be better directed.
Don't have children? Think about whether you'd like the ambulance driver taking you to a hospital to be able to read street signs.
Education and social well-being is for all of us. Happiness spreads. When the poorest are reasonably cared for, the richest can sleep soundly.
Then, after 20 or 25 years, the dictator should be asked to resign and hand things over to elected and appointed officials, who will then have another 200 years to run amok.