DAREing to just say yes to America’s youth

While taking time out from a busy Fashion Week in New York, first lady Laura Bush managed to do some field work in Baltimore and Philadelphia, visiting schools and successful programs as part of her new role as head of President Bush’s Helping America’s Youth, a new plan to increase literacy and decrease youth violence.

However, Helping America’s Youth is really only another well-titled fa퀌_ade to direct attention away from Bush’s real agenda.

The plan, introduced during the State of the Union address, proposes $150 million over three years for youth education and violence prevention programs, focusing on boys, community and, of course, faith-based programs.

Upon first glance, everything sounds great, aside from the ridiculous irony of putting Laura in charge of a program aimed at reducing youth violence among underprivileged and minorities, and mainly males at that!

Without doubt, gang-related violence is a major problem in big cities. "Caught in the Crossfire: Arresting Long Island Gang Violence by Investing in Kids," a report published in October by the New York chapter of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found that gang-related homicides have increased by 50 percent since 1999.

Here in Portland, we’re equally aware of the many problems facing public education -budget cuts have shortened the school years and threatened many extracurricular programs.

But what kind of help will Bush’s program really offer to us?

Looking at the administration’s record there is every reason to be skeptical of this new plan.

In January 2002, the No Child Left Behind bill was signed into law. There’s no way to argue with the idea behind this bill but as with most of Bush’s legislation, the reality is that not one child is left behind, but entire schools full of them.

That’s why more and more school districts and educators are rejecting its foundations and the federal money that comes with it so schools can avoid its requirements.

In staunchly Republican Utah, legislators have introduced a bill that would prohibit authorities from complying with the law or accepting the $100 million it would bring the state. At least six other state legislators have introduced similar legislation.

The main reason for this is that the law fails to accurately depict the performance of students in schools, and it enacts requirements for which there is no funding, sending schools into even more financial turmoil.

The comparison between No Child Left Behind and Helping America’s Youth is valid for more than their similarly optimistic titles. The suggested $150 million for the Helping America’s Youth program is as drastically low as funding for the No Child Left Behind legislation with perhaps as many logistical faults.

Over three years, the funding would amount to just one million dollars per year per state. While better than nothing, this is hardly enough to address the issues.

Sanford A. Newman, president of the national office of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids in Washington, D.C., called it "at best a symbolic effort" in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

This is even more apparent when Bush’s proposed budget cuts are examined.

Around one third of the programs singled out for cuts are in the Education Department, including federal grant programs for local schools in such areas as vocational education, supporting drug-free schools and Even Start, a $225 million literacy program.

Doesn’t look so good now, does it?

Laura Bush can play Vanna White for the president’s straw man, but the reality won’t remain covered for long. What’s being proposed for the next four years is a lot more of the same: a huge deficit, lip service to education and social programs, and an increase in homeland security and defense spending.

As for our children and the millions of young men sucked into violence and poverty because of a society that doesn’t care for them: more of the same – nothing.

Michelle Howa can be reached at [email protected]