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And many of those people, who are disproportionately black, are going to end up in prison, unemployed, underemployed or on welfare as the nation hurtles toward the day when minorities will make up a majority of America’s population.

“Demography is our destiny,” said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization that works to make every child a high school graduate. “The question is, ‘What kind of destiny will it be?’ ”

America rose to global prominence largely because it adopted universal education when most countries reserved schooling for the elite. This grew a strong middle class and fueled the innovative society that brought this country wealth and its high standard of living.

Yet even as it set a universal education system, the United States simultaneously produced a system in which students of color were deemed expendable, Mr. Wise said.

Fifty years ago, two schools of thought on education existed, Mr. Wise said, but didn’t intersect. One grew from the civil rights movement and said the nation was morally responsible for ensuring that every child got a good education. The other was an economic imperative that didn’t need every child to finish school — a system that favored white students over blacks and got away with it.

“That was the case until 15 or 20 years ago,” Mr. Wise said. “It is no longer the case that if we only have about 40 percent of our kids going on to college, most of them who were white, then the economy will do quite well.”

“If we look at the changing demographics, we know the largest population of young people is indeed going to be children of color,” said Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation.” “If we’re going to continue to be productive as a nation, it’s going to require a paradigm shift. Our success depends on their success.”

The Census Bureau projects that the white population will increase 1 percent by 2020, while the black population will surge 32 percent and the Latino segment by 77 percent.

By 2050, whites are expected to make up less than half of the nation’s population. As older white Americans retire and fewer white children are born, the nation will become increasingly dependent upon people of color to drive the economy.

Yet a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education warns that unless black, Hispanic and American Indian students are better served by schools, the percentage of students earning high school diplomas and college degrees in those groups will decline, and so will the nation’s gross domestic product.

“If attainment levels for minority students decline as projected, the country’s economic standing — already challenged by China, India and several other countries — will fall as well,” the report says.

The report goes on to say that if the educational attainment of black, Hispanic and American Indian students matched that of their white counterparts by 2020, the United States would see more than $310 billion a year in extra earnings and productivity.

Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development and an achievement-gap expert, says it’s clear the country spends more money to educate white students than it does to educate poor black and brown children.

“This is where the attitudes of the older white population toward kids of color and funding public education are a threat to their own interests,” Mr. Noguera said. “Older white people should be the main advocates for seeing schools improve and seeing more minority kids go to college because those kids are going to be paying for their Social Security.”

Mr. Wise said school districts must hire high-quality teachers with high expectations for all students. He says districts also should give extra support to students who come to school already behind and should tailor the education to the child with small classrooms and a broad curriculum.

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