The opening of The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa has sparked a debate about the quality—or lack thereof—of public schools in America. Why is our dropout rate so high? Who's to blame for poor inner city schools? And do teens really care more about sneakers and iPods than getting a good education?
Oprah says she's not blaming kids for our country's education problems. "Everybody's trying to take that out of context and say I was trying to blame the victim and put this burden on the children of the country. But I really wasn't," she says. Oprah tells the story of a girl living in a hut in South Africa who, when asked what she needed, didn't say food or blankets, but rather a uniform so she could go to school. "I wonder how many kids you'd have to interview in this country before you could get one to say that," Oprah says.
Oprah says she's been trying to get people to care about education for years and wants to channel the recent criticism of her new school into a movement to improve our schools here at home. To lead the charge, she talks to two leading voices on the debate over education in America.
Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender, tells Oprah that teens need to think beyond being rappers, athletes or lottery winners. He blames parents for not holding their teens' feet to the fire when it comes to getting a high school diploma. Martin says the message needs to be loud and clear: "You're not going to live in this house and drop out."
New York University Professor Pedro Noguera, author of Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools, tells Oprah it's petty for people to complain that she's spending $40 million dollars for a school for girls in South Africa and not building a similar one in the United States. "It's petty because it's a good thing that you're doing," he tells Oprah. "We live in a wealthy nation—we shouldn't have to rely on philanthropy to get the kind of schools that we need." Noguera says that part of the problem is low teacher salaries, joking that teachers shouldn't have to live with their parents and that teaching shouldn't be "missionary work."
Oprah pledges to continue to make education a priority. "I keep saying it and saying it, and in another decade we're going to pay the price for people not listening," she says.