Now More Than Ever We Need To Improve American Education

My friends often accuse me of laying all the ills of our country at the doorstep of our inadequate public school system. So it should come as no surprise that in the aftermath of this chilling presidential election, I find myself turning, once again, to improving education as a prescription for a more fair and successful society.

Bleeding heart that I am, I have tended to focus my efforts on children of color in underserved communities.  But this election makes me acutely aware that it is not just African Americans, Latinos and immigrants who are being left behind. An enormous swath of our population has just registered its displeasure with the loss of manufacturing jobs available to those with a high school diploma or less. This is something that must be taken very seriously.

But perhaps not in the way those voters expected. Despite Donald Trump’s promises, the fact is that industrial blue-collar jobs will not return to this country in a big way. Coal mines, automobile plants and steel mills are not suddenly going to spring up in the wake of a Trump presidency. For one thing, it takes years to design, site, finance and build major industrial facilities, and where such plants are built, they will be highly automated, with robots performing most of the tasks Trump’s supporters yearn for. Yes, such plants do create jobs, but they are opportunities for well-educated engineers and technicians, not wrench-turners with a high school diploma. 

The solution, therefore, is a workforce qualified to take on those 21st century opportunities in the new economy. This means creating a vibrant educational system that will engage and empower all segments of the population, and both women and men. Startlingly, girls are now outperforming boys on the educational front by a sizeable margin – nearly 3 million more women attend college than men – a state of affairs that should make nobody happy. But whatever the gender or socio-economic class we are talking about, we are not going to prepare our kids for the job market, or to become responsible citizens, by giving them a low-expectations, one-size-fits-all education.

So I am going to continue to work harder than ever on improving American education. My path is through community organizing at Speak UP, trying to help parents understand what needs to be done to improve our system, and encouraging direct action to accomplish the same. While I know that with institutional resistance, these changes won’t happen tomorrow, I firmly believe parents getting involved and voting in school board elections – where only about 10 percent of voters are under age 35 – is the key to ultimate success.

Our next LAUSD school board election is just months away in March, and it’s an opportunity for all of us to make a positive change. Working toward a better future is also the best antidote to the despair, fear and confusion that so many have been feeling over the past week.

Because only an educated, enlightened population – whether in urban centers like Los Angeles or the Rust Belt – can grow up to make educated, enlightened choices for themselves and their society.

-- Heidi Landers is a writer and longtime education activist and philanthropist. She is a member of the Speak UP Board of Directors.