Perhaps you watched the most recent ABC-sponsored debate between Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, moderated by George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson. The initial questions were so inane, so tabloid as to be desperately discouraging.

As one pundit put it, after one hour of trivia, the loud thump you heard across the country was caused by shoes being thrown at 10 million television screens.

Perhaps the question that best captured the tenor of the evening was one asked of Obama by a concerned citizen from the heartland: Why didn't Obama wear a lapel flag pin? In fact, the network displayed the concerned woman on a large screen where she insisted that all of the police and EMTs she knew wore such pins. Obama apparently did not and was this reflective of a lack of patriotism on his part?

Obama resisted the question, pointing out that it was not substantive. He went on to say that he preferred to demonstrate his love of country in other ways. And in fact, the White House, which is awash in lapel pins large and small, is the same outfit who allowed our troops to go to Iraq without proper armor and, when they returned injured (physically and mentally), sent them to Walter Reed, which was woefully unprepared. Recovery became, for far too many, a bureaucratic nightmare. Merely wearing a flag pin doesn't mean that you choose to translate this shallow form of patriotism into genuine concern or action. Obama didn't say that, but he clearly could have. And followed it up with countless other examples.

The questioning went on in this vain for far too long, distractions every one. It was a sad display of "gotcha" journalism and diminished both moderators as well as ABC.

The issues Gibson and Stephanopoulos ignored? Over the last 15 months few questions (if any) have been asked concerning public education. For so many of our young people, they are provided with an education that is heartbreakingly inadequate. We are failing generation after generation of our children.

Consider a recent report released by the Educational Testing Service titled "America's Perfect Storm." "High school graduation rates," states the report, "peaked at 77 percent in 1969, fell back to 70 percent in 1995 and have stayed in this range into the current decade. The graduation rate for disadvantaged minorities is thought to be closer to 50 percent."

Imagine losing half of all minority students before graduation. Imagine losing 30 percent overall. It's tragic and it's scandalous.

A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicates that the United States ranks 16th out of 21 OECD countries with respect to high school graduation rates. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal that "between 1984 and 2004, reading scores among 13- and 17-year olds remain flat and achievement gaps were large and relatively stable." In other words, the disparities between minorities and whites in terms of education (sufficient literacy and numeracy skills) remain large and are unchanging.

The result is that a significant numbers of our adult population (16 years and older) do not demonstrate an adequate education to compete in the 21st century work environment.

The question the report asks is how we as a nation can hope to compete in a global economy which increasingly demands the very skills our students are failing to master? We can't. But this is more than simply an issue of America remaining competitive globally. We are rapidly developing two Americas &

those at the top of the pyramid who have training, education and marketable skills and those who do not.

It is also a moral issue. How can we fail to provide for our children and equal, world-class education? How can we proclaim to the world that all men are created equal if we know that many of our youngest will never be able to avail themselves of the education necessary to enter a rapidly changing, information driven work force, one that is growing in complexity, and one where literacy and numeracy are paramount?

Far too many of our urban schools, funded in part by property taxes (which are shrinking with the recent housing crisis), cannot even begin to address the tsunami of needs required to assure that each student not only graduate but graduate well-prepared to compete.

The disservice to our children is staggering. What is all but intolerable is that this "Perfect Storm" (like so many "Perfect Storms" nationally) is being ignored, while an inordinate amount of time is devoted to distractions: do our candidates wear flag pins, or have they bagged a duck on a remote lake in Pennsylvania, or do they know how to bowl? Can they throw back whiskey with a beer chaser, or do they attend church where the pastor, tempered during the civil rights era, fills his sermons with an undiluted anger regarding race and inequality? Or does either has a sensitive finger on the pulse of the "blue collar" voter (many of whom, if truth be told, are feeling bitter and at a loss)? Are either closet elitists?

The reality is, so much is being ignored. And it puzzles. What are we afraid of? Why are our politicians (and the press) afraid to address directly so many mounting and intractable problems? Why are we so mistrustful of anyone who insists that if we are going to effectively solve all that has been left undone &

from health care to the deficit, two ongoing wars to the housing crisis, a recessive economy to global warming &

we will need a national discourse which is thoughtful, and complex. The solutions will require sacrifice (not tax cuts) and a reordering of our priorities. Flag pins, of course, are easier. But that way leads us into a cul-de-sac which will prove disastrous for us and our children.

Tangentially, watch for an ad from the North Carolina Republicans linking Obama's pastor to Obama and to two Democratic candidates running for state office. It is the epitome of slanderous, Rovian imagery, mentioning not one issue. Hillary produced a similar ad using images of 9/11, Osama bin Laden, Pearl Harbor and the Great Depression while implicitly questioning Obama's readiness to serve. This against a fellow Democrat. No issues were mentioned. No solutions proffered. And so it goes.

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