Commentary: Average citizens step in where Washington fails

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

I'm not much of a TV watcher under the best of circumstances, and the torrent of political vitriol interspersed amongst the regular programming these days is no motivation.

Nevertheless, a half hour on the elliptical trainer goes by more quickly with some kind of diversion, so I plugged into a cable news show the other morning at the gym.

My initial low expectations were matched by the cynical "mourning in America" ad, in which a somber voice intones that our once-mighty nation is fading into joblessness, foreclosures and debt, and our only hope is "a smaller, more caring government." Paid for, of course, by the same folks who got us into this cycle in the first place.

I was feeling pretty mournful myself, until the "Morning Joe" news show returned with an interview with Colin and Alma Powell.

The subject was dropout prevention, and the interview was part of "Education Nation," a weeklong NBC News project that has featured conversations, news programs and a two-day "summit," all about making U.S. schools and students more competitive.

Gen. Powell, of U.S. Army and U.S. secretary of state fame, and his wife are the founders of America's Promise Alliance, which strives to lift children out poverty. One of their goals is to cut the dropout rate in half. Their prescription is better schools and a lot more community intervention in the lives of at-risk kids.

The Powells engaged in a fascinating conversation with hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski about the nation's responsibility to young people left behind in failing schools and neighborhoods.

Colin Powell framed it as not just a moral obligation but a matter of national security.

Shockingly, 70 percent of young people 17 to 24 years old today can’t meet requirements to serve in the military, he said. They lack a high school diploma, or they can’t pass an admissions exam even if they have a diploma. A good number are obese or can't pass fitness requirements.

America's military, its workforce and its hopes for strong future leadership all depend on expecting more from youths and then giving them the support to meet expectations.

So what are the Powells doing about this? America's Promise enlists businesses, nonprofits and faith groups to get involved with at-risk kids. It also urges communities to look at factors that have proven they increase the odds for success, such as universal early childhood education.

None of this is new or revolutionary. But here's what it is: A serious, data-based and inclusive approach to tackling a big problem. In fact, NBC's "education summit" featured a host of people who are actually, finally, making progress in turning around failing schools.

Forward movement — how refreshing. Washington is stuck and is likely to remain so, regardless of which party takes control after the November elections. But outside of that self-absorbed, dysfunctional galaxy, people are looking at the big picture and getting things done.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has teamed up with Newark Mayor Cory Booker in a purposeful effort to reform the struggling school system of the state's largest city. The governor is a Republican and the mayor's a Democrat, but who cares? This is about kids and communities and a state's economic future.

It's frustrating that we can't look to Washington to solve problems. But we can look to governors of both parties; they are the most innovative of politicians. We can look to the nation's mayors and county executives; they are closest to the pulse of real people.

We can look to faith leaders, business people, academics, brainy college graduates and energetic retirees, including one exceptional four-star general and his dynamic wife.

Once you get past the "mourning in America" ad and all the tiresome baggage that comes with it, you can see the sun coming up after all.