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Disappearing Capital

The high cost of high school dropouts

I grew up in the Midwest, where many people used to work in factories. Today, many of those manufacturing jobs are gone. And the new jobs that have replaced them require new skills that we never even thought about when I was in school.

We have entered a new era—the knowledge economy—in which education will be more important than ever. Today, a high school diploma is absolutely essential for anyone who wants an opportunity to succeed. For the most part, our schools are serving the needs of students who go on to college. But we are failing the ones who never make it to the finish line.

When our nation was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001, every American recognized the attacks as a threat to our way of life. But our democracy is also threatened by the rate at which young people are dropping out of school before they earn their diplomas.

Our 12-point action plan to reduce the dropout rate has drawn acclaim from congressional leaders and progressive organizations since it's launch in October. --Reg Weaver

Some experts report that nearly one-third of all public school students fail to graduate with their class. And among Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students, there is roughly a 50-50 chance of graduating from high school. The odds are equally poor for some Asian-American groups, especially Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

These youngsters are not just falling through the cracks—they are falling into a crater that threatens to swallow our nation’s future. The students who drop out of school will pay a heavy financial price for the rest of their lives. But our whole society will also pay a price.

We will pay a price in lost tax revenue, because these young people will be unable to earn a decent living. We will pay the cost of incarcerating those who turn to crime because they cannot find a good-paying job. And our society will pay an awful price for squandering the human potential of millions of young people.

A recent study by the Alliance for Excellent Education showed that our economy would grow by more than $325 billion if every student graduated from high school. A team of economists from Columbia University also found that each new high school graduate would contribute an additional $139,100 in income tax revenue; would save $40,500 in public health care costs; and would reduce crime-related costs by $26,600 over a lifetime.

Team NEA, we should not only be concerned. We should be outraged. It’s time for us to get serious about addressing the dropout crisis in our country.

Our 12-point action plan to reduce the dropout rate has drawn acclaim from congressional leaders and progressive organizations since its launch in October. The comprehensive initiative is also receiving strong support from allies representing minority communities—groups such as ASPIRA, NAACP, the National Association for Asian and Pacific American Education, and the National Indian Education Association that are dedicated to working with us to tackle the alarming dropout rate.

The NEA plan calls for more emphasis on vocational and technical training—and for integrating those programs into traditional schools. If a student has decided not to pursue a college degree, we need to keep him or her engaged in school by offering skills that will be relevant.

Like the economy, public schools must adapt to help all students graduate and become productive citizens. As caring and committed educators, I know we can help make this mission a reality.

NEA President Reg Weaver

Photo: John Dziekan/NEA

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