- - Sunday, August 31, 2014

This Labor Day, many Americans will use the holiday to wind down the summer, cook out with friends, or get a long weekend away.

Unfortunately, for 9.7 million unemployed Americans, Labor Day will be no different than other days as they scrape to get by.

Even for those who do have a job — full-time or part-time — many are struggling through this weak economy some five years after the Great Recession. A job is a job, but it certainly doesn’t mean financial independence.

Wage growth has been stagnant for many in the past five years. Few have seen pay raises as costs for health care, energy, food and other expenses continue to rise. Although the unemployment rate has started to drop in recent months, we have not seen wages rise with it.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average workweek in July for private, nonfarm jobs was 34.5 hours, which also means less take-home pay. Only certain segments of our population are obtaining high-paying jobs, as unemployment rates for blacks remains high at 11.4 percent and 20.2 percent for black teenagers.

With our nation experiencing the worst economic recovery in 70 years, there is only one route to getting coveted good jobs and higher wages. That is a high school diploma and some type of postsecondary education or training.

Today, too many students — who aren’t getting an education suited to their needs — will never have a shot at making a decent wage unless we embrace bold change in our schooling system.

That transformation must come with school choice.

This year, there are 51 school-choice programs in 24 states and Washington, D.C., which allow more than 300,000 pupils to transfer to a private school that offers them a better educational opportunity. These include school voucher and tax-credit programs that offer scholarships to children. The newest programs are launching in Kansas and Florida this school year.

However, with 51 million children still stuck in the public school assigned to them by their address, their future is limited by the education offered at their neighborhood school. Some public schools are excellent, but others are lacking.

Instead, all parents should be free to choose a school that works for their son or daughter so no child faces a lifetime of poverty, government assistance, unemployment or low wages owing to their poor educational skills. A good education should not be limited only to those who can afford private school or a home in a good school district.

After all, education is the key to financial independence.

A 2012 study by the Brookings Institution and Harvard University found that recipients from a privately funded K-12 voucher program in New York City increased the overall college-enrollment rate among blacks by 24 percent.

More education leads to greater wages. According to the Center for Education Statistics, young adults with bachelor’s degrees earned more than twice as much as those without a high school diploma or its equivalent — $46,900 compared to $22,900. College graduates earned 57 percent more than those with a high school diploma.

With a sputtering economy holding down any significant salary increases, the best path to prosperity is to avoid unemployment or a dead-end job. For millions of American children, that will happen only if their educational outlook is transformed through giving their parents the job of choosing the schools that work best for them.

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