January 21, 2008

Be a Problem-Solver

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Legislators are routinely asked what they’re doing to solve our state’s “big problems”—like poverty, crime, unemployment, and the like.  The stock answer many of them give is to rattle off a list bills they’re involved with relating to the problem in question.  Though that response satisfies most questioners, it totally ignores the public’s role in the problem-solving process.  It gives the illusion that government, alone, is the answer.

The fact is that government can’t do it all by itself.  Certainly, government can help.  It can bring about temporary fixes and steer things in the right direction.  Long-term, though, the only way to solve today’s major issues is for government, businesses, and individuals to work together on them.

Consider, for example, the massive racial disparities in our public school system.  A recent study revealed that the gaps between black and white students in subjects like reading and math are higher in Wisconsin than in any other state.  Since the release of that study, citizens from around our state have (rightly) been calling on government to step up and do something to fix the problem.

In response, the Legislature passed a budget that included $21 million in high poverty aid and $10 million in funding for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), all designated to help eliminate racial disparities in our public schools.  Currently, bills are on the table to require higher standards on teachers in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, as well as to help us hire the best teachers for MPS.

Those measures are a good start, but they won’t amount to anything unless our communities commit to building on them.  People need to understand that the most effective way to improve reading skills isn’t to hire better teachers; it’s for parents to read more with their kids.  And the best means of keeping kids in school isn’t through government incentives; it’s through family, friends, and neighbors coming together to stress that education has more of a future in it than crime does.

January is National Mentoring Month and it gives us all the opportunity to be problem-solvers when it comes to education.  Each of us can help Wisconsin take a real step forward simply by assisting kids with homework, recommending books, or just giving encouragement when needed.

The solution to educational disparities starts with being there as a positive influence.  That, more than any government plan, is what’s needed to repair the fabric of our educational system.  Politicians can’t make that happen for us.  It has to come from our spirit and from our souls.

I believe, to paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, that “there is nothing wrong with Wisconsin that cannot be cured by what is right with Wisconsin.” I believe that, deep down in our hearts, all of us are committed to bringing our personal—as well as our corporate and governmental—resources to bear in making this a better society.  If we commit ourselves to that, only then can we truly speak about solving the “big problems”.