Peter W. Cookson, Jr. is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is the founder of “Ideas without Borders,” a Washington DC firm specializing in 21st century education and education as a human right. His book “Sacred Trust: A Children’s Education Bill of Rights” was pubished this month.
Make no mistake about it, when it comes to budget cuts the first to be sacrificed are poor children. As the President and Congress prepare to reduce the 2012 federal budget, the few under-funded programs that support poor kids are on the chopping block.
Consider this: If it was reported tomorrow that the 14 million citizens of Nebraska, Idaho, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming went to bed hungry every night, would we not all be shocked and demand the government do something to stop the suffering? How could we let 14 million Americans struggle for food when over 41 billion pounds of food are wasted every year?
Yet, in America, 14 million kids do go to bed hungry every night with barely a whisper of outrage. Five blocks from the White House hunger is real for many children. But unlike the citizens of the 13 states listed above—who are represented by 26 Senators and 20 Members of Congress— these hungry children have no representation.
Twenty percent of our kids live in poverty; Share our Strength—No Kid Hungry reports that 65% of teachers regularly see kids who come to school hungry because they are not getting enough to eat at home; 20 percent of kids rely on food stamps; 1 in 50 children experience homelessness; 1 out of 28 kids has a parent in prison; and a recent study by the Equal Justice Initiative has documented 73 cases where 13-and 14-year-olds have been condemned to death in prison.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a child is born into poverty every 32 seconds.
These facts are chilling enough, but they don’t even reflect the facts about our industrial school prison system that acts as a pipeline from cradle to prison for too many poor children, nor do they reflect the health of poor children—13 million school days a year are missed each year due to asthma alone. The third leading cause of death among 15-to-19 year-olds is suicide. National studies indicate that 1 in 4 kids are bullied every month.
International comparisons show over and over again that disadvantaged American students are not intellectually or creatively prepared for the economic, political and social challenges of the 21st century. The children who are being mis-educated today will be part of a huge number of the unemployed, underemployed and unemployable adults who cannot be expected to stand on the side-lines of history quietly. We are sitting on a social and political time bomb.
Our children are literally being sacrificed on the altar of our collective moral blindness. Apparently, for some there is an escape clause in the social contract. Perhaps it is hidden in an invisible ink which says: when it comes to supporting children we are free to do nothing—even as we spend trillions on arms.
But this is not who we are as a people.
First Focus, a child advocacy organization, released in late April of this year a survey on the public’s reaction to budget cuts. Voters believe that children in the United States fare poorly; when considering budget cuts voters want to protect children; over 60 percent want no reduction in public education. According to Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, “The American people are sending a message that is loud and clear: Don’t cut kids.”
Nelson Mandela once said, “There is no keener revelation of society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” The decisions we make in the next few years will shape our collective souls for decades to come. Are we a people who believe in me first or are we a people who believe in children first?
The time has come to stop treating our children as sacrificial lambs and start treating them as our precious national resource. To invest in the future is the surest way to ensure that the American Dream will not die.
I have proposed a Children’s Education Bill of Rights because every child has a right to health, safety, and the opportunity to develop his or her talents. The time has come to return to our roots as a people. Budgets that support more wealth for the already comfortable are upside down, budgets that support all children are right side up.
Let’s turn the altar of sacrifice into a community table where all are invited and where all can find nourishment, health, and hope.