The argument that the retail industry needs high-school students no longer holds true. Most of the striking fast-food workers are adults trying unsuccessfully to support families on less than $10 an hour. And the argument that such jobs lead to advancement and managerial positions is specious; only about 2 percent advance to managerial jobs.
Few fast-food workers even get 40-hour workweeks or benefits. They do not have the collective-bargaining power that unions had to create the middle class after World War II. If the federal minimum wage — $7.25 an hour since 2009 — had kept pace with inflation, it would be $11 by now, according to the National Employment Law Project. If it had kept pace with productivity growth, it would be almost $20.
The only way we will make economic progress — and restore the battered middle class — is through better education. Teaching children to pass tests, as we have been doing for years now, is not working. Our students must learn far more, learn more broadly and learn more deeply.
Even colleges have discovered that just passing students from one level to another is not enough. Some institutions of higher learning are beginning to require tests for graduation to provide assurance to future employers that they are getting what they pay for. Think of it as mini bar exams for engineers, scientists, teachers and technicians.
A 12-month school year, with two-week breaks here and there, would definitely help working parents. Finding care for young children during the summers is costly and arduous. Worse, children are left to fend for themselves. And who has not worried about the temptations idle teenagers are subject to during long summer days?
Of course, there is opposition. Some think children work too hard and need to relax. (For eight to 12 weeks?) Some want children to get the benefit of those hard-to-find part-time jobs. Some families can afford long vacations (for which exceptions could be made).
And some think the economy depends on those ubiquitous back-to-school sales.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.