Since President Lyndon B. Johnson famously declared an unconditional war on poverty 50 years ago, we’ve experienced some remarkable changes that have improved our lives—from breathtaking medical and technology advances to cleaner air and greater access for women and minorities into the top ranks of business and government. Regrettably, however, much has also remained the same. Notably, poverty continues to deal a crushing blow to an estimated 46 million Americans, dimming the hopes of those who feel trapped in a place that seems impossible to escape.
As any public official who has focused on the problems of the poor will tell you, it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that our country has accomplished so much in the past five decades even as it still struggles with ways to erase poverty. Academic success for young people is a major step toward that goal.
Recent studies, including one by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, indicate that college graduates “outperform their peers with less education” on “virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time.” According to the study’s findings, “disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era.”
When I served as mayor of Atlanta from 2002 to 2010, we managed to balance the city’s budget, fix our sewers, strengthen economic development, improve public safety, and reduce homelessness. As proud as I am of those accomplishments, however, if I could turn back the clock, I’d focus much more attention on education, especially early-childhood and postsecondary education and training. Better-educated people are more likely to have the technical and analytical skills required to handle today’s jobs. They’re also apt to earn higher salaries, which boosts their purchasing power and gives them the kind of mobility that makes it easier to enrich their lives and our communities.
Since an elected school board rather than the mayor runs Atlanta’s public school system, I felt limited in what I could or should do to engage directly in improving our public schools. I focused my attention on tackling the big noneducation issues facing our city and left the administration of our school system to the board. With the benefit of hindsight, I know that I was just too quiet on education. Although I surely would have ruffled a few feathers by becoming more directly involved in education matters, mayors can cross uncomfortable boundaries to get things done.
Reflecting on my years as mayor, I often wonder how I could have done more to encourage educational attainment for our city’s young people. Considering that every year the Atlanta public schools graduate only half the students who enter 9th grade, with only one in five expected to attend college, I should have used my convening power to help solve the problems in our K-12 schools, including how to encourage college access.
With the benefit of hindsight, if I were to assume the job of mayor today, I would use the bully pulpit to immerse myself in every public discussion about K-12 education, from charters to teacher training to extended school year and extended day.
I would aim to demonstrate how important it is to view big challenges like poverty, education, unemployment, infrastructure, housing, and public safety as elements of one big quality-of-life issue that are best tackled through a more collaborative approach to problem-solving. These efforts can also help establish and monitor community wide goals. None of these is a one-off issue. They are all connected, and they need to be attacked together.
I would focus on early learning. Research shows that children growing up in low-income households hear approximately 30 million fewer words than children growing up in middle-income and affluent families by the time they reach their 4th birthday. I would find a way to guarantee every 3- and 4-year-old child access to high-quality early education.
Mayor Angel Taveras of Providence, R.I., had the right idea when he launched Providence Talks to close this gap. The reality is that if we want our teenagers to graduate from high school ready for college or career, we have the responsibility to start them on the right course by preparing our earliest learners for kindergarten.
I often wonder how I could have done more to encourage educational attainment for our city's young people."
I’d focus on cutting high truancy rates and work to reach more at-risk students through wraparound support services that can get them on the right track before they drop out of school.
I’d seek funding to sustain the Mayor’s Youth Program, which offered summer internships and college grants to thousands of Atlanta youths. Under the program, hundreds of students were awarded scholarships annually, and we leveraged federal grants and private donations to employ hundreds of high school students in career-related jobs each summer. The college assistance helped remove the heavy financial burden higher education can pose for students and their families, often putting it out of reach.
Everything we do to close the achievement gap for our young people increases their self-esteem, reduces the likelihood that they will join a gang, and builds a foundation for greater success throughout life. To transition from school to the working world, young people need to learn life skills, such as personal responsibility and respect for others, as well as the academic and technical skills necessary to achieve professional success. We can’t rely on the school system alone to provide students with those answers.
I would focus like a laser beam, using the bully pulpit and the convening authority of the office, to break the cycle of poverty in the neediest neighborhoods. Improving education from cradle through career, with concurrent investments in housing and community wellness, will have the triple bottom-line effect of making our schools, neighborhoods, and health outcomes better for the young and the old. Imagine the impact on Atlanta’s economy if we could break the cycle of poverty for the 39 percent of the city’s children who live below the poverty line. Imagine if we could do this for the nation at large.
This Commentary is part of a special section supported by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at www.luminafoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as A Former Mayor Reflects on Higher Education’s Impact