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What ‘The Wire’ Says About the Presidential Candidates’ Education Proposals

By Michele McNeil — January 03, 2008 2 min read

Today, voters in Iowa will help decide who will be our next president, and today here in the Washington D.C. area, I’m about halfway through last year’s season of the HBO show, “The Wire.”

What does “The Wire” have to do with the Iowa caucuses, you ask? Well nothing, except the two got me thinking...

This gritty, in-your-face, no-apologies drama about how street life rules Baltimore turned its lens on the city’s public schools in Season Four. And the result wasn’t pretty. (I happen to be a Baltimore resident so this show is pretty much required viewing in my city.)

Season Four, which just came out on DVD, focused on a group of promising, but troubled “corner” kids who make their teachers’ lives miserable because they are leading miserable lives of poverty, drugs, and crime. Although this is just a TV show, it’s grounded in depressing reality. In fact, one of the actors—Felicia “Snoop” Pearson—is a real-life, 27-year-old Baltimore drop-out who at age 14 pleaded guilty to murder, but who turned her life around after getting out of prison. Watching “The Wire,” I’m struck by this thought: Would any of the education ideas proposed by the presidential candidates save the futures of the kids portrayed in “The Wire?” Probably not.

Though there are success stories, schools in these troubled urban centers—be they in Baltimore, or Detroit, or Los Angeles—usually won’t be fixed in any dramatic way by changing who teaches in them, how many social workers are employed, or what class sizes look like. Because when these kids go back to their corners, they’ll still be surrounded by drugs, crime, and poverty. When you’re literally dodging bullets, selling drugs as part of the family business, and scraping for money to buy food, where does school rank?

Fixing education has just as much to do with fixing neighborhoods and fixing families. And I’m as guilty as the next education reporter for looking only to the education platforms of the candidates for insight into how public schools can be improved, when really, we need to be looking at the bigger issues.

Some of the candidates nibble at the edges of these bigger issues. Hillary Clinton’s plan to cut the minority drop-out rate in half, which includes grant money for community-based solutions for at-risk youth, is an acknowledgment that the answers to fixing schools don’t just rest in the schools themselves. Barack Obama wants to double the amount of money for after-school care. Meanwhile, Republicans generally favor a broader solution—school choice.

But for the presidential candidates who say fixing schools starts with the parents, who are the best teachers, I ask: How would that help kids like “The Wire’s” Namond Brice, who is pushed onto the street corners to sell drugs by his mother?

Nor is there an easy solution for helping a kid like Dukie, whose family can’t provide him with the basics all students should have — a school lunch and some clean clothes.