Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise is on a mission. Ever since he was governor of West Virginia, he has been pushing high-school graduation as a major goal for states, cities and individuals. As a member of Congress he pushed for financial aid for college, and as governor of West Virginia he signed legislation to fund the PROMISE scholarship program to help high-school graduates continue their education. He was able to see a significant increase in the number of students completing high school and entering college while he was governor.

It is not surprising that after he left Congress and the governorship he decided to make education his life’s work. He is now the president of the Alliance For Excellent Education. A recent study from the Alliance showed that every school day more than 7,000 students become dropouts, adding to about 1.3 million students who will not graduate from high school with the class they started out with in first grade. The numbers are quite shocking. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census’ statistics released in 2006, a high-school dropout would have an average annual income of $17,299. A high-school graduate would earn an average income of $26,933. If they continued on in a community college, they could earn and average of $36,645 by obtaining an Associates degree.

The Alliance’s study also pointed to the fact that when an economic downturn hits, dropouts are much more likely to be unemployed. High-school dropouts have faced the most difficulty in finding a job during a downturn in the economy. The unemployment rate for dropouts in July of 2009 was 15.4 percent, compared to 9.4 percent for high-school graduates and 7.9 percent for people with some college.

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The statistics for low-income families also are not pretty. The Department of Education found that high-school students of low-income families dropped out of high school at six times the rate of their peers who were from high-income families. Achievement also is part of the mix, with nearly one-quarter of the lowest-achieving students having a whopping 20 times the dropout rate.

These are scary numbers, but even scarier is what happens in terms of the drain on local and state economies. States with high dropout rates can’t collect as many taxes, they have to spend more on the social safety net, and it is harder to attract business with a population that does not have the skills businesses need. The Alliance For Excellent Education also found some other startling statistics. According to their study, high-school graduates are less likely to be teen parents and less likely to commit crimes or rely on government health care. High-school graduates use less public services such as food stamps or housing assistance. It is well-known that it costs almost double to keep somebody in prison for a year than it does to pay for a year of solid education.

President Bush made education a centerpiece of his administration and raised awareness of the need for educational standards. The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests have been able to track changes in educational achievement. It has been a good start, but there is not enough money and early childhood education put behind this effort. It has also has focused on elementary and middle grades and not enough about the higher grades.

Way back in the ’60s, film director Fred Weisman made a documentary called “Hight School.” Watching the documentary, you see students being completely turned off to the educational process. This should have been a wake-up call – and although the documentary has stood the test of time, our educational policies have not.

Gov. Sarah Palin and the tea-party people can talk all they want about how great this country is and can be; however, greatness takes real work and real money. If we do not put our resources behind education and make our high schools responsive to students and to our country’s needs, we will lose our place in the global economy. Gov. Wise points out that 30 years ago the United States was the world leader in both quantity and quality of high-school and college graduates, but now the United States’ 15-year-olds have fallen to 15th of 29 OECD countries in reading literacy. In mathematics literacy, American 15-year-olds ranked 24th of 29 in OECD countries. This is shocking and shameful, and no matter what the rhetoric, without laser-beam attention to this problem we will continue to lag behind other industrialized countries and lose our competitive advantage as a nation. We can’t afford not to put all our efforts behind improving our high schools.

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