WILLIAMS: The dropout rate is a crisis

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OPINION/ANALYSIS:

In his second inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt lamented: “I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.” From that lament, the New Deal took root.

More than a pinching of the bare necessities, the nation President Obama sees is plagued by ill-education, featuring high school dropout rates routinely soaring past 50 percent in major urban areas where the underprivileged predominate. The ailment threatens the nation’s democracy, economy and social fabric. It is aggravating racial or ethnic divisions. It confirms the insight of H.G. Wells that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

Mr. Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserve some praise for embryonic federal steps to address the dropout problem by encouraging charter schools and offering hundreds of millions of dollars in economic stimulus funds to innovative nonprofit educational programs with promising or proven track records. But the national effort is vastly incommensurate with the magnitude of the high school dropout danger. Mr. Obama needs to provoke a national conversation and high-voltage concern over the disaster that is already upon us.

Education is a cornerstone of any democratic dispensation. The Founding Fathers understood that the American Republic would collapse amid demagoguery and folly if its citizens were not properly educated to understand and to defend their rights against government encroachments and to repudiate nostrums, elixirs or perpetual-motion machines habitually promised by ambitious and scheming politicians hoping to win popularity.

The number of illiterate nations that operate authentic democracies can be counted on one hand with several fingers remaining. Thomas Jefferson sermonized: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Accordingly, President George Washington emphasized in his first State of the Union message the urgency of public education to avoid a descent of the American Republic into tyranny or debauchery:

“Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness. In one in which the measures of government receive their impressions so immediately from the sense of the community as in ours, it is proportionately essential. To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways - by convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people, and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness - cherishing the first, avoiding the last - uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.”

The nation’s 6.2 million high school dropouts menace freedom, liberty, and enlightened government. They are ignorant of their constitutional rights. They are incapable of distinguishing between government abuses and the rule of law. Their ignorance makes them vulnerable to demagogic appeals and inclines them toward bigotries and prejudices. They contribute nothing to constructive public debate about major issues confronting the nation, ranging from mandatory national health insurance to more troops in Afghanistan. And they are incompetent to assist in defending the country from aggression.

The 6.2 million high school dropouts are equally damaging to the economy and social fabric. According to a recent study by researchers at Northeastern University in Boston, on any given day about 10 percent of male high school dropouts are either in jail or juvenile detention. The picture is even more chilling for blacks. Almost one in four young black male dropouts are imprisoned or institutionalized on an average day. Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans and president of the National Urban League, elaborated: “The dropout rate is driving the nation’s increasing prison population, and it’s a drag on America’s economic competitiveness.”

The Northeastern report calculated the collective national cost over the working life of each high school dropout at $292,000, including lost tax revenues, welfare, and incarcerating the substantial percentage of dropouts who turn to crime. The $292,000 figure excludes the increased costs of insurance and lower property values occasioned by dropout criminality and the dropout contribution to illegal immigration. If the 6.2 million dropouts were all educated and gainfully employed, the economic attraction of the United States to would-be undocumented aliens would plunge. As it is, 69 percent of black dropouts are unemployed; and, the corresponding percentages for whites and Hispanics is 54 and 47, respectfully. The report attributed the oddity of the lowest rate for Hispanics to the fact that many illegal immigrants included in that category compete successfully for jobs with native-born youths.

The shocking dropout statistics nevertheless understate the ill-educated population. An enormous percentage of non-dropouts receive certificates of completion in lieu of diplomas - which signifies little more than class attendance. Every employer can testify to the growing number of applicants bereft of communicative skills indispensable in a majority of jobs: reading, listening, comprehending, writing and speaking with clarity and conciseness. British philosopher and wordsmith Samuel Johnson correctly observed that there is the same difference between the leaned and unlearned as between the living and the dead.

The dropout problem is additionally explosive because it accentuates racial and ethnic divisions. The black and Hispanic dropout rates are much higher than the corresponding rate for whites. The educational achievement gap among the three is equally conspicuous and worrisome. But a nation divided along educational lines by race or ethnicity is fragile and vulnerable to social upheavals.

The traditional public education model earmarked by monopoly and powerful teacher unions substantially explains the prevalence of ill-educated youths. Experience teaches that in any endeavor, monopoly is a narcotic and competition a stimulus. The dropout crisis can be remedied in part by encouraging high-tech, computer-based charter school and private school competition. Vouchers and national charter school licenses issued by the U.S. Department of Education should be part of the mix. Additional ideas should be explored in congressional hearings.

There is no better investment in the United States at present than high schools targeting high school dropouts for enrollment and graduation.

• “The Armstrong Williams Show” is broadcast weeknights on XM Satellite’s Power 169 channel from 9 to 10 p.m.

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