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Our Cities Are Devastated -- Will Obama Bail Out Urban America?

40 years of benign (and not so benign) neglect have done inordinate damage to the socioeconomic structures of our inner cities.

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A study commissioned by America's Promise Alliance found a striking gap in graduation rates between urban and suburban high schools -- 75.4 percent of suburban students graduate, but only 58 percent in urban school districts end up with a degree. And as any economist will tell you, when it comes to education equality, our failure to address poor schools isn't just a crime against students -- it condemns the nation as a whole to lower economic growth.

Obama talks a good game on the importance of improving urban education, but it might be his single toughest challenge, and it's not yet clear he's up to it. The world of education policy is currently at war: One side says progress can only come after changes are made in inner-city students' family and extracurricular lives, while the other wants reform to focus on teacher quality and accountability. The former supports funding for existing programs; the latter, more choice for parents, including charter schools.

But whether it makes a difference in those communities depends less on policy than politics. If Obama sides too strongly with the reformers, he will find himself stuck in the same rut that confronts Washington schools chief Michelle Rhee in her effort to erode teacher tenure: Heavy opposition from unions and teachers' colleges, enough to make all but incremental changes impossible.

Obama's first priority, now that he has the money, must be to cool down the conflict and make it more of a discussion than a war, to bring all sides together as mutually respecting stakeholders. Whether he can is an open question.

Finally, there is the matter of vision. Why are cities important in the first place? On the campaign trail, Obama promised a new approach to urban policy, one that treated cities not as basket cases but as potential engines of growth. That's absolutely the right way to frame things, but with an asterisk. Cities are important because they are the necessary nuclei to America's metropolitan future. They are still the gateways for the millions of immigrants who replenish our economy. And by virtue of their density, they are the font of our diverse culture and values.

But economic growth should be the goal, not the means to an end. The former means recognizing that many urban centers have a long way to go before they can sustain equitable, broad-based growth. It means making investments in things like education, small-business development and crime prevention, items that carry huge up-front costs that won't pay off for years. It means accepting that not all government spending should be weighed on a cost-benefit scale.

The latter, however, can too easily translate to things like big-business incentives and mass transit aimed more at suburban access than urban mobility, programs that quickly boost tax bases but in the long run shortchange lower-income urban dwellers. This has been the mistake of generations of urban leaders, and it is why the current boom in urban growth is so lopsided, so heavily tilted toward transient, yuppie lifestyles and exclusive entertainment venues, rather than publicly shared resources like schools and parks.

We are now seeing why such an urban strategy, built on the consumption patterns of the rich (or soon-to-be rich) is unsustainable. It relies on high commercial and residential real estate values, and it constructs urban environments that play only to those classes that can afford them. When home and office prices plunge -- along with their occupants' incomes -- cities suffer disproportionately.

Forty years of benign (and not so benign) neglect have done inordinate damage to the socioeconomic structures of our inner cities, even as the rest of America has forgotten these places exist. It's not enough just to talk about cities. Obama is on the right track; now he has to show that he not only cares about cities, but understands them as well.