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Follow the spelling bee

Marketplace Staff May 30, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It doesn’t have the cachet of the Olympics or the 200-miles-an-hour thrill of the Indy 500, but ABC is hoping we’ll watch anyway. The network is putting the National Spelling Bee in primetime Thursday night. Just the latest in spectator sports. Commentator and economist Marcellus Andrews says if we’re smart, we’ll make spelling something everyone can do, not just watch.

MARCELLUS ANDREWS: I love spelling bees. I know that makes me a dweeb, but I can’t help it. I was the Powell Elementary School representative in the citywide spelling bee in Philadelphia 40 years ago.

I know that America’s future hinges on whether the nation is willing to turn lots of kids from hard neighborhoods into fighting dweebs like the skinny, bookish but brawling kid I used to be.

Soon after 2050, whites in this country will be in the minority. Kids born and raised in the US between now and then are going to be mainly black, brown, yellow and multiflavored; only about 15% of kids will be so-called “pure” white kids.

The only way this country is going to stay rich is by being and working smarter than other nations. That means our kids — all of our kids — had better be smarter than everybody else’s kids.

Here’s the bottom line: our country’s future depends on whether the current white majority is willing to invest in the minds, health and skills of non-white children.

We know what has to be done: Give up on our obsession with local control of schooling. Local control of schooling has meant that racial and economic segregation turn petty phobias into sturdy obstacles to equality.

President Bush’s “No-Child Left Behind” program is a mess. But this president has taken a first step toward breaking the link between race and educational opportunity. Bravo.

Still, we need to spend lots more and at the federal level on high quality schooling for kids of all colors and conditions.

If we do the right thing, then America will invest equally in all of our multicolored children, making them the core of a scandalously smart and competitive economy.

If we let our racial neuroses overwhelm our good sense, we will turn America into a country comprised of selfish old white people and ignorant young colored people.

I, for one, look forward to the day when the symbol of smartness in America is a future winner of the National Spelling Bee with green eyes, a brown face and dirty blond dreadlocks.

RYSSDAL: Marcellus Andrews’ latest book is called “The Political Economy of Hope and Fear.”

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