Before our final exhale, the vast majority of us want more than anything to find comfort in knowing that we have successfully secured a better life and future for our children. Of the many ways we can work to accomplish that, ensuring that our children have access to quality education appears most reliable. More than money, an education will equip them with the tools to develop a skill set for a profitable profession, a general understanding of the world in which they inhabit and an opportunity to continue tradition in leading a better life for the next generation. It is no wonder that education is often the final linchpin in determining one’s success or failure in life.
Mindful of this, for decades, lawmakers have passed policies targeted at addressing the education disparity within the nation. The problem is that education reform bills always appear to address the widening educational achievement gap in one of two ways: an increase in education funding or a new form of standardized testing. These proposals are often necessary, but alone fail to address the real problem: a lack of social capital in K-12 schools.
I was only 11 when one of the nation’s most sweeping education-reform laws passed in 2001 — The No Child Left Behind Act. The purpose behind the law was to expand the federal role in public education by regulating teacher performance, scholastic achievement levels of all students and fundamentally changing the school funding formula. My generation was the “guinea pig” for the law’s impact on K-12 students.
As I matured through grade school, I witnessed firsthand many of my classmates fall behind in academics, while others dropped out of school altogether. In retrospect, it appeared that many of them fell behind because of what the legislation failed to adequately address: a lack of quality teachers, community engagement, ample classroom time and quality educational standards.
Many suggest today that a mere increase in federal education funding will solve the educational achievement gap. However, history tells a different story. Since 1941, federal education funding has increased by 9,000 percent, according to the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman.” All the while reading and math levels have consistently declined to unprecedented levels.
Our Golden State’s education rankings tell a similar story. According to California’s Department of Education, public school funding receives nearly half of the state’s budget, which far exceeds the amount spent on any other program. Unfortunately, our Golden State ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in reading and math.
The logical question then becomes why education levels have advanced inconsistent with funding levels. Robert Putnam, Harvard University professor of public policy, suggests in his book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” that a lack of social capital is to blame for the educational disparities among children. Putnam blames single-parent households, a lack of community engagement, less involvement in sports and extracurricular activities and low church attendance for producing a generation lacking scrupulous values necessary for success and character building. Putnam’s insight challenges our beliefs about why students of the last six decades academically outperformed students today. The trend tells us what we already know. Success is most frequently a product of hard work. Hard work is a product of scrupulous values. Scrupulous values are a product of many factors, including close relationships, a loving parent or guardian and character building — i.e., social capital.
The next logical question is how we can increase social capital in our communities. Hoover Institution Fellow Michael J. Petrilli, a critic of Putnam’s work, suggests we can build social capital by inviting poor children into better schools that can spare social capital, build on social capital that already exists in socioeconomically deprived communities and by creating new charter schools.
There are many ways of building social capital in our poorest communities. The fact is it will take much more than any financial resource to build the missing community engagement needed to improve our communities of poverty. The real solution is a much more difficult and unpopular one for us to grapple with — we must each break cynical chains of thought and work together to build social capital.
We can mentor a young adult around us in need of direction and guidance. We can volunteer at a local food shelter or soup kitchen. We can tutor a student in need of academic assistance. The bottom line is that our opportunities to build social capital in our local community are endless and not limited to the federal government’s purse.
As President John F. Kennedy once said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
A native of Pacifica, Jonathan Madison worked as professional policy staff for the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Financial Services, for two years. Jonathan Madison is a recent graduate of the University of San Francisco School of Law. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.