By Wade Henderson and Bob Wise
San Jose Mercury News
Now that their summer vacations are over, students have traded their beach towels for textbooks and members of Congress have returned to Washington after spending August in their districts and states. Already, Congress has started work on a revised No Child Left Behind Act, but if it doesn't include high school reform in the next version, the nation will continue to suffer from a dropout crisis that claims over 1 million students every year - 7,000 students every single school day.
Although the dropout crisis affects students from every race and income level, it disproportionately affects low-income students and students of color. According to independent estimates, only 57.8 percent of Latino, 53.4 percent of African-American, and 49.3 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students in the United States graduate with a regular diploma, compared with 76.2 percent of white students. Unfortunately, the public rarely hears about these low graduation rates because states are not required to report the graduation rates for minority students.
At the same time, low graduation rates for minority students should be of critical concern to every state, especially California, which has large percentages of these children. Between now and 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau expects the white population in the United States to only grow by 1 percent. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population is projected to increase by 77 percent and the African-American population by 32 percent.
If the country cannot better educate minority students and ensure that they graduate from high school, the national graduation rate, already only a paltry 70 percent, will fall even further as growing numbers of minority students are left behind.
Alternatively, if the nation's high schools and colleges were to raise the graduation rates of minority students to the levels of white students by 2020, the potential increase in personal income across the country would add more than $310 billion to the U.S. economy. California alone would see $101 billion of this total.
But rhetoric and facts alone can't change the status quo. So our organizations have joined with several other groups (the League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, National Council of La Raza, National Indian Education Association, National Urban League, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center) to launch the Campaign for High School Equity. This marks the first time that so many prominent civil rights organizations have agreed to collaborate specifically on the needs of our nation's high school students.
The campaign will underscore the importance of graduating all children from high school with diplomas that guarantee that each is prepared for success in college, the workforce and life. Not only do our students deserve an excellent start toward a productive and fulfilling life, but our communities and nation also depend on a fully educated workforce to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy.
Unfortunately, we're still a long way from this goal. Since enactment in 2002 of No Child Left Behind, we've seen higher test scores among the nation's elementary school students, but secondary school students continue to flounder. In part, this lack of progress is because the law was primarily written with earlier grades in mind. In fact, President Bush's original proposal only used the phrase "high school" twice.
This month, Congress can fix that oversight by addressing the needs of high schools as part of a revised law. Were Congress to enact significant reforms and make targeted new investments in the nation's middle and high schools, the economic return would be sizable. For example, if the nearly 1.2 million high school dropouts of the nation's class of 2006 had instead earned their diplomas, the U.S. economy would have seen an additional $309 billion in wages over these students' lifetimes.
The time to act is now. For every school day that Congress fails to act, another 7,000 kids will drop out of school.
WADE HENDERSON is counselor for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund. BOB WISE is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.