Congress Is letting down education, and business

Last month, about 3 million teenagers donned caps and gowns to receive their high school diplomas.  About two-thirds of them will enroll in college, while one-third will join the labor force or enlist in the military.  We’re not writing about them; we’re writing about the roughly 1 million kids who drop out of high school every year.

Those kids are in trouble and as a result, so is our economic future.  By 2020, economic research suggests there will be 123 million skilled, high-wage jobs available in the U.S. but only 50 million workers qualified to fill them.  Our economy can’t grow if approximately 20 percent of our population doesn’t graduate from high school and doesn’t have a shot at higher education or a 21st century job.

The graduation challenge is not intractable, but it has deep roots.

Currently, half of our nation’s dropouts come from about 10 percent of our nation’s schools, the majority of which are in communities struggling with concentrated, inter-generational poverty.  Students in these communities often face obstacles that hinder their ability to stay in school and on track to graduation.  We have to focus our attention in these communities and ensure that struggling students receive the support they need to graduate.

A provocative new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research concludes that when school districts are forced by the courts to increase their spending, low-income children are significantly more likely to graduate from high school because schools are better equipped to address their challenges.  But where will the money come from?  We face paralyzing gridlock in Washington over federal spending and most state and local governments are still recovering from the Great Recession.

Fortunately, we know of one approach that works and that doesn’t take a lot of money.  It’s called national service.  And it’s time that Washington banks on the potential of American youth and fully funds cost-effective service programs like AmeriCorps.

We’ve been exposed to the benefits and cost-effectiveness of national service on education by working with City Year. The premise is fairly simple: if you offer a modest incentive to harness the youthful enthusiasm and altruism of young adults, provide the proper training and the opportunity to make a difference in local communities, amazing things can happen.  City Year, for example, places teams of AmeriCorps members in low-performing schools to serve as full-time mentors and tutors for 10 months, assisting public school teachers.  These young people help schools boost student achievement and graduation rates.

Many other organizations, including Teach for America, College Possible, Citizen Schools, Alliance for Catholic Education and the Harlem Children’s Zone also improve student achievement in high-poverty communities by mobilizing national service members.  They’re showing what’s possible when you mix research-based interventions with the extra human capital needed to get things done.

What’s the cost?  A small living stipend and education award per member provided through AmeriCorps. That’s a small price to pay, especially considering the alternative:  dropouts are projected to cost the U.S. $1.6 trillion in social services and lost earnings over the course of the students’ lifetimes.

Participation in national service programs like AmeriCorps also offers significant benefits to those who step forward to serve.  A report by the Corporation for National and Community Service shows that volunteering increases the likelihood of securing employment among unemployed Americans by 27 percent; 55 percent for unemployed Americans living in rural areas.

Five years ago, the president signed the “Serve America Act,” legislation authored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).  The law authorized 250,000 service positions by 2017 but despite broad bipartisan support, the vision of that landmark legislation has not been realized.  Currently, there are fewer than 80,000 AmeriCorps positions available nationwide.

We believe education is the pathway to a brighter future.  And we believe the public and private sectors have a responsibility to invest in solutions that will dramatically improve our nation’s education system. 

As private sector leaders, our companies have been investing matching dollars into these effective national service programs for nearly two decades.  In fact, the private sector invests more than $800 million annually in matching funds to support AmeriCorps programs, representing a nearly one-to-one match for every dollar of the initial federal investment.

National service programs are a public-private partnership we are proud to support and want to see grow.  Now, Congress must invest in these programs, support students living in poverty and ensure our nation’s ability to compete well into the future.

Ward is the chairman, president and CEO of the CSX Corp. and a member of the National City Year Board of Trustees.  Cohen is the executive vice president of the Comcast Corp. and vice chair of the National City Year Board of Trustees.

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