To Fix Economy, Start in the Classroom

The role strong education can play in the country's economic outlook needs to come to the fore during the general election.
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When did encouraging education become a controversy?

Almost incredibly, controversy has erupted over a proposal by Sen. Jim Webb's (D., Va.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel's (R., Neb.) plan to enact an update to the GI bill, which would expand opportunities to educate members of the U.S. armed forces.

President Bush has vowed to veto the new veterans bill, and Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) -- the probable Republican nominee -- stands by the veto. In a press release, McCain cited retention as a reason for being against the bill:

"At a time when the United States military is fighting in two wars, and as we finally are beginning the long overdue and very urgent necessity of increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps, one study estimates that Senator Webb's bill will reduce retention rates by 16%."

Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) said of McCain's stance: "I can't understand why he would line up behind the president in his opposition to this GI bill. I can't believe why he believes it is too generous to our veterans."

There are many who argue that a new GI bill could spur military recruitment, but this debate spurs the need for a larger discussion on the issue of education.

The military has struggled to meet recruitment goals, consistently loosening requirements to include high-school dropouts, among others. Not only would adding incentives to join make a difference in recruiting, but it also would improve the average recruit's education level. The Congressional Budget Office concurred

in a recent assessment

. Education levels hit a 25-year low, according to

one study

.

Allowing high-school dropouts to join the military sets a poor precedent. Furthermore, high-school dropouts present a growing problem for America. A

new study

by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) finds the declining high-school graduation rate alarming. Why? NBER suggests the graduation rate measures the strength of preparedness of the American worker.

NBER noted that in the first half of the 20th century, increased high-school graduation rates in turn led to higher college completion rates and increased skills in the workforce. Those rates have remained flat for decades since then.

NBER also noticed the massive disparity between minorities, mainly blacks and Hispanics, and whites. Minority graduation rates are often 15% lower than the average rate. Even those statistics may be too high. Many minorities complete high school equivalency tests but end up earning the same amount as dropouts.

So what education plans do the presidential candidates propose to solve the problem?

McCain's education plan comes down to one principle: choice. From a post on his campaign Web site: "He believes all federal financial support must be predicated on providing parents the ability to move their children, and the dollars associated with them, from failing schools."

McCain clearly recognizes that public schools don't always serve a child well. Though his Web site does not outline specifics, he clearly supports some form of portability for students -- possibly school vouchers. Students could then transfer to private schools or possibly get tax breaks for home schooling.

Obama and Clinton have a more holistic approach to education. They see a need for distinct improvement in three areas to increase effectiveness of schools: early childhood education, K-12 and access to a college education. Their measures are intended to strengthen the efforts made in public schools from beginning to end of the education process.

Furthermore, both have called for an end to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. NCLB was intended to make schools and teachers much more accountable by providing testing to measure success. The act received insufficient funding to help failing schools, however, and many critics have called for proper funding or a complete overhaul.

Nevertheless, none of the presidential candidates have any specific plan to address the high-school dropout problem. The NBER study stated a sad fact:

The origins of this dropout problem have yet to be fully investigated. Evidence suggests a powerful role for the family in shaping educational and adult outcomes. A growing proportion of American children are being raised in disadvantaged families. This trend promises to reduce productivity and promote inequality in the America of tomorrow.

Often these disadvantaged families live in urban settings and find it difficult to break out of the cycle. These children were supposed to be aided by NCLB.

A

new study

by the Center for the Urban Future, based in New York City, offers a solution for many urban schoolchildren. The center advocates increasing the funding and use of technical schools. Technical schools train high school students in skills related to business careers, providing concrete examples of learning rather than stressing theories found in textbooks.

The center highlighted two key selling points in its study:

Career and technical education (CTE) offers a powerful answer to the problems of both high school completion and career preparation ... yet students at the 21 dedicated CTE high schools across the five boroughs graduate at dramatically higher rates and are four times less likely to drop out than academics-only high schoolers. Attendance at the most successful CTE schools runs as much as 10 points above the city average for all high schools. Additionally, research suggests that CTE graduates who attend college--as more than two-thirds do--tend to perform better than other students, while those who go straight into the workplace have greater earning power.

Those are powerful findings. Technical schools may well point a way into the future for urban youths looking to improve their prospects in life and earnings potential.

Now if we could only get the politicians out on the campaign trail and in Washington to debate real solutions to the difficult problem posed by a declining graduation rate of our nation's high schools, we would see the hope for a stronger economy and a stronger military.