By Ben Wolfgang- The Washington Times Half of all Americans now say that the nation's public schools are getting worse, according to a new study released Thursday by United Way Worldwide.
At an education town-hall meeting at the District's Trinity Washington University, where the survey was released, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called improving the country's lackluster education system both "the civil rights issue of our generation" and a "potential national security issue" because there are not enough educated young people to fill the ranks in the military.
Despite the limping economy, Mr. Duncan said there are millions of jobs waiting for qualified people to fill them, but "we're just simply not producing the workers that have those skills."
To combat such poor performance, Mr. Duncan argued that early intervention is critical, saying that "we know as early as kindergarten the kids who are going to struggle."
The United Way released a new effort to recruit 1 million tutors, mentors and readers to work with students across the country, an effort praised by Mr. Duncan and Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
According to the group's survey, 92 percent of Americans think states need to do a better job of funding lower-income schools, at a time when many state legislatures are considering substantial cuts to their education budgets to close huge shortfalls.
The United Way report was compiled from 150 "small-group conversations" across the country, six focus groups and a national poll. It also found that 29 percent of parents are worried their child will drop out of school; 62 percent say there are not enough community activities when the schoolday ends; and 57 percent said the biggest hurdle to building stronger communities and schools is a decline in moral values.
Americans' beliefs that public schools are getting worse — held by 50 percent — is supported by a Department of Education report earlier this month stating that 37 percent of districts are not meeting federal guidelines and estimating that the number could rise to 80 percent this year.
The administration also is preparing for a likely fight with Republicans over President Obama's proposal to replace President George W. Bush's signature No Child Left Behind Act with his own federal education policy.
The office of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said panel Chairman Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, hopes to introduce a bill by spring, though it appears unlikely Republicans in the House will follow suit.
Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies and a political strategist, said education policy at the federal level, while important, will not work without grass-roots efforts from parents and community leaders, to which end Mr. Belcher echoed Mr. Duncan in painting the country's education system as a civil rights problem.
He said Americans need a "Rosa Parks moment," when people demand change from elected leaders, rather than waiting for the president or Congress to come up with a cure-all for failing schools.
"There is no silver bullet. There is no hero," said Rich Harwood, president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.
Margaret Spellings, secretary of education during the Bush administration, voiced support for No Child Left Behind, but also said a growing consensus in Washington and across the country thinks more must be done.
"We're not in denial anymore," she said.
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