Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings delivered a call to arms here last week to combat America's "silent epidemic," a high-school dropout rate that has reached crisis proportions. We have long known about the problem, but the numbers are still just as shocking as ever -- more so now because of new data showing that the real dropout rates have been masked by varying definitions of what constitutes a dropout.

In 1963, President Kennedy addressed the problem at a time when four out of 10 fifth graders did not finish high school.

"Forty-four years later, the dropout rate for African-American, Hispanic and Native American students approaches 50 percent. We are wasting not just lives but time," Spellings said in an address to the National Summit on America's Silent Epidemic, where first lady Laura Bush, a former teacher; Spellings; and educators from around the country met to discuss ways to cure a critical illness at the core of America's school system.

"Despite our best efforts, there are still vast inequities within our education system," Spellings said. "In too many of our cities, the reality faced by minority and low-income kids is shocking. ... 15 percent of our high schools produce more than half of our dropouts."

Nationally, more kids are graduating than ever before, but the story is very different in America's urban, inner-city school districts where public schools are sorely lacking in educational leadership, resources and the political will to overcome a very solvable problem.

In these schools, which Spellings says are more appropriately called "dropout factories," a majority of the students are minorities, and their high-school experience looks vastly different from what most kids encounter.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.