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.

"They go to schools where trash litters the floors, where graffiti decorates the walls ... where most freshmen enter unable to read or do math at an eighth-grade level and where graduation is a 50/50 shot, or worse," she said. The result is that each year nearly 1 million high-school students do not graduate and thus become virtually unemployable in a knowledge-based economy where even many factory jobs require skills in science, math and technology. The deepening dimensions of this social epidemic have festered in the shadows for so long because, in many school districts, such dropouts are counted "only if he or she registered as one." In other districts, dropouts are listed under "graduate" status if they promise to get a diploma at a future time. But now a new online database showing graduation rates in school districts across the country will give parents the tools to find out how their own communities measure up. Notably, the data being produced by the trade journal Education Week shows that graduation rates are lower than previously reported in most states.

How can we turn this tragic situation around? Giving parents data about their schools may be helpful in some areas, but minorities in the poorest school districts may not have access to such data and, in most cases, may not need it to tell them about a dropout rate they may be all too familiar with. Spellings is proposing that Title I spending in President Bush's No Child Left Behind reauthorization be increased by another $1 billion "to improve and strengthen our public high schools serving low-income students."

There are legitimate reasons to doubt whether more federal funding will reverse the dropout rate. We've been increasing federal aid-to-education budgets for decades now by huge amounts, with little improvement in our SAT scores.

This is a problem that is ultimately going to be solved within the states, our communities and the four walls of our classrooms, by outside-the-box thinking about how schools are run, how teachers are hired and how students can be encouraged with stronger incentives to stay in school.

We need to end the prohibition against hiring non-education-degree alternative teachers. Spellings called for creating an Adjunct Teacher Corps to bring math and science professionals into the classroom. It's a good idea. There is a vast population of such people among the soon-to-be-retiring baby-boom generation in many academic fields who can bring a new and challenging enthusiasm and discipline into our schools.

We need to encourage school-choice programs that allow parents to move their kids out of failing, high-dropout-rate schools into better public, private and parochial schools of their choice. Wisconsin pioneered the school-choice movement with great success. It needs to be copied around the country. Rather than pouring more money into failing schools, why not provide tax-subsidy incentives for major corporations to establish technology and science high schools within inner cities to educate and train the workers they need to remain competitive in the global economy?

Microsoft, IBM and hundreds of other U.S. corporations say they cannot fill thousands of job openings because of a lack of skills in math, science and computer programming.

Such companies would bring the same innovation and excellence to education they have brought to the marketplace. I have a feeling the first Microsoft High School of Science and Technology in, say, the South Bronx, would have few if any dropouts. How about it, Bill Gates?


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.