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Dobbs: No summer vacation for our failing schools

By Lou Dobbs

Editor's note: Lou Dobbs' commentary appears every Wednesday on


City Planning
Justice and Rights

NEW YORK (CNN) -- School's out in nearly every part of the country, and students are delightfully spilling into their summer vacations with little, if any, thought of what September will bring.

But for just about a third of all high school students in this country, summer brings no respite from the failure of our public education system. Those students have already dropped out of high school, and they have left behind nearly all hope of furthering their education and assuring individual prosperity.

The failure is not theirs alone, and we all bear responsibility for failing an entire generation of students in our public school system. We must understand that our educational crisis will have long-lasting and profound effects on our national future.

Our elected representatives and educational administrators all but refuse to acknowledge that high school graduation rates for American public schools were higher nearly 40 years ago than today. And while one-quarter of white high school students drop out of high school, the problem is magnified for blacks and Latinos, about half of whom drop out of high school, according to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute.

There's no question the economic fallout of these astonishing dropout rates will be devastating. High school dropouts have much higher rates of poverty, imprisonment and welfare enrollment. Even if these dropouts can get a GED and a job in our increasingly credentialed workforce, today's high school dropouts will make at least 35 percent less than high school dropouts of a generation ago. Worse, of those who are fortunate enough to graduate, too many lack the skills to enter college.

But a high-school diploma or college degree is as important as ever in our society, where our federal government and corporate America have combined to launch a full-scale attack on the middle class. Workers without so much as a high-school diploma earn on average $18,734 a year, according to the Census Bureau, about $9,000 less than their counterparts who have graduated high school. Armed with a bachelor's degree, the average worker earns nearly three times as much as a high-school dropout.

Those numbers indicate the critical need to mount a national attack on the crisis that is far worse than administrators and educators have reported. Whether schools and their administrators are lying or cheating, or they're simply incompetent, matters little. Without independent educational studies, we would have no idea as to the depth of the crisis that faces our public school students in this country.

These so-called educators and administrators may be trying to keep the graduation numbers high so that they can meet the high standards of the No Child Left Behind initiative. While that initiative has not shown nearly as much success as its proponents and advocates had promised, it's done better than most of its critics and opponents would have you believe. In any event, the program offers far too little and lacks urgency in dealing with this crisis.

And we're not talking only about money. Ironically, the United States spends a larger percentage of its total GDP on educating its students than just about any other country in the world. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics also show that we expend more money per student for primary and secondary education than almost any other nation. And while the Bush administration has changed the formula for Pell Grants, leading to negative cutbacks for prospective students, more than $60 billion in federal student loans will be distributed this year. That's why it's so difficult to solve this systemic problem.

But we do have reason to hope. There is a growing movement to hire quality teachers and pay those teachers what they deserve. Voters in Denver, Colorado, last November approved a dramatic change in the way teachers' pay is structured, opting to boost their own property taxes by $25 million in order to offer bonuses for improvement in classroom performance and incentive pay for teaching in the city's under-performing schools. Already, it's having a measurable impact, and other cities like Chicago, Illinois, and New York are planning initiatives.

And a bold new educational program called the Kalamazoo Promise has begun in Michigan. Under this plan, students will receive free tuition at Michigan's state-funded universities and community colleges if they enter the Kalamazoo school system at kindergarten and remain in that school system through the 12th grade, maintaining certain established grade levels. Other students will receive substantial help with their college tuition as long as they enter the public school system by the ninth grade. Incredibly, it's all being funded by anonymous donors, and they need to be commended for their efforts.

Certainly none of us has all the answers to fixing our failing schools. But here are a few thoughts, just to add to what I hope becomes a national effort to assure the quality education of the next generation:

  • It is time to restore absolute discipline to our public schools and classrooms to eliminate every extraneous program in kindergarten through eighth grade that does not focus on reading, literature, writing, American history and civics, mathematics and natural sciences.
  • We should begin to redress the compensation of all public school teachers to ensure that we have the very best and brightest educating our next generation. For me, that means paying teachers far more and demanding far more of them.
  • The role of the federal government should be to provide, no matter what the cost, a scholarship program that provides a family stipend to economically disadvantaged students who demonstrate exceptional intellect and talent.
  • All graduating seniors in the top 10 percent of their class should be assured federally funded national scholarships to pursue university educations in mathematics, science and English. And stipend programs should be instituted, conditional on an educational commitment to teach in our public schools after their college graduation.
  • With the July Fourth holiday weekend approaching, restoring quality education to our public schools will help assure that every American celebrates every day as Independence Day.

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