It may not exactly be Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, but the nation's closest thing to a political "Odd Couple" rolls into Baltimore today when the Rev. Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich visit Kipp Ujima Village Academy and Hampstead Hill Academy charter schools as part of a nationwide tour to highlight education reform.

This unusual pairing of a liberal civil rights activist with the conservative former speaker of the House provides Maryland policymakers - and all educators - an opportunity to reassess where we are in America today with the quality of education offered children attending inner-city schools.

Seven years ago, Maryland's General Assembly enacted legislation that increased spending by billions of state and federal dollars on public schools. Yet this new money has not done nearly enough for Baltimore's children. Many students throughout the state are still being denied an education that will provide them an opportunity for success. Separate and unequal still exists, even in an era where we have our first African-American president.

The evidence in Maryland is overwhelming:

Among the nation's 100 largest school districts, Baltimore has the 98th worst graduation rate, with 35 percent of students earning a high school diploma. In the Baltimore suburbs, 81.5 percent of students graduate. By comparison, 76 percent of Maryland students earn a diploma.

In the class of 2007, about 27,000 Maryland students quit school before graduation.

Taxpayers spend about $42 million annually on dropouts, paying for social services ranging from incarceration to increased Medicaid costs and mental health and addiction services. Dropouts in Maryland are almost twice as likely to be on Medicaid as those who graduate high school.

The 393,200 Maryland dropouts who are of working age earn $10,000 a year less than their peers who obtained a high school diploma.

Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Gingrich made stops in Philadelphia, Tucson, Ariz., and Montgomery, Ala., this fall (in most cities with Education Secretary Arne Duncan) to highlight the problems of other inner-city schools. So far, they have focused only on solutions such as charter schools - a fine start toward reform, but not a long-term advance toward bringing children out of poverty and completing their education.

The political "Odd Couple" have been quoted as saying that providing a quality education for all students is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. If this is more than rhetoric, each will call for radical change in the form of school choice to save the lives of future generations. As Malcolm X said 45 years ago, complete freedom, justice and equality are achievable - but only when you consider any means necessary to get there. Only considering half-measures, such as increased spending and charter schools, misses out on an opportunity for equal access to a quality education for all students.

Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Gingrich should instead campaign for a program similar to one before the General Assembly that would give companies tax credits for donating to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help parents send their children to private schools. And they shouldn't be shy about discussing school vouchers either. Studies show that when there is more competition, public schools work harder to improve their outcomes.

With such dismal graduation rates in Maryland, the status quo is no longer acceptable. Maryland parents and policymakers are likely to embrace "any means necessary" to reform a failing education system, including school choice. Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Gingrich have the bully pulpit today. They can recycle the same old arguments about more money and incremental reforms that have provided inadequate improvement for Baltimore and Maryland students over the years - or they can start a movement.

Baltimore can be the place where this "Odd Couple" launches a historic civil rights struggle for educational equality. To quote Malcolm X again, "Without education, you're not going anywhere in the world." As we see in Maryland, too many students keep going nowhere too fast.

Robert Enlow is president and CEO of Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. His e-mail is rcenlow@friedman

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