Business Leaders Say Dropout Problem Calls for Action

EDUCATIONAL failure costs plenty. Every class of dropouts - the youths who leave United States schools in a single year - earns about $237 billion less than an equivalent class of high school graduates during their lifetime. As a result, the government receives about $70 billion less in tax revenues.

Each year taxpayers spend $16.6 billion to support the children of teenage parents.

About 82 percent of all Americans in prison are high school dropouts. It costs an average of $20,000 to maintain each prisoner annually.

These are facts taken from a new report entitled: ``The Unfinished Agenda: A New Vision for Child Development and Education.'' It was prepared by the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a group of 250 top corporate executives plus a sprinkling of university presidents. The report reflects the growing view of US business leaders that they must take a greater role in reforming education. Otherwise, they fear, their companies will find increasing difficulty in hiring the engineers, scientists, and ot her educated workers needed to make their businesses competitive.

As patriots, they are also worried about the stability of US society if a larger proportion of the public is unable to read properly and is ignorant of governmental affairs. ``You can't have a participatory democracy where people can't make informed choices in the voting booths,'' says Sandra Kessler Hamburg, director of the CED research project.

The report notes: ``Our society has undergone profound economic and demographic transformations, but the social and educational institutions that prepare children to become capable and responsible adults have failed to keep pace. Unless we act swiftly and decisively to improve the way we invest in our most important resource - our nation's children - we are jeopardizing America's survival as a free and prosperous society and condemning much of a new generation to lives of poverty and despair.''

Educators have sounded similar alarms for years and taken some important strides to improve public education. The CED hopes its report will stimulate greater involvement of business people in educational reform in their own communities. But, says Ms. Hamburg, ``There isn't yet a groundswell of activity out there.''

However, business people have played major roles in numerous reform programs. The CED report examines briefly more than a dozen such programs. Five chief executives were testifying before Congress this week, urging more federal money for such successful programs as Head Start and the Women, Infants, and Children's nutrition program. The Business Roundtable has a program to push education reform at the state level. There is a Business Coalition for Education Reform that embraces the nation's largest busi ness organizations, including those representing blacks and Hispanics.

Business, the report says, has a ``critical role'' in creating the positive political climate needed for improving the quality of education and child development policies and practices. It adds: ``No change in public policy can occur without a sizable political constituency.''

This report seeks improvements in the preschool situation of children. Such factors as poverty, chaotic family structure, substance abuse, and racial discrimination now place as many as 40 percent of US children on the road to educational failure before they ever reach the schoolhouse door, the report says.

Some existing programs to reach these disadvantaged children do work. But it will take more than the schools alone to educate these children, the report says. It will take a ``comprehensive and coordinated strategy.''

Business leaders, the report recommends, should give highest priority to these disadvantaged children. These executives should lead in identifying strategies for change and determining the resources needed to achieve results. They should support involvement of parents in their children's preschool development and education. This could be done through workplace policies, such as flexible scheduling, release time, and the encouragement of volunteers. ``We need to strengthen families,'' says Hamburg.

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