Data recently released by the California Department of Education reports that the high school dropout rate in Los Angeles County rose to 24.3 percent for 2008-09, up from 21 percent in 2007-08. In some of our county’s high schools, six of 10 students drop out. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, more than 70,000 young people dropped out of high school in the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area in 2008. The alliance maintains that cutting this number in half would result in $575 million in additional earnings in an average year for a single class of new graduates in Los Angeles.

The numbers associated with not graduating from high school speak for themselves. The unemployment rate for high school dropouts is more than 300 percent greater than that for students with higher education. The alliance reported that a high school dropout earns, on average, about $260,000 less than a high school graduate over his or her life. According to the Center for Labor Markets at Northeastern University, the nation’s young dropouts in 2007 on average earned $8,358 annually, well below an average of $15,149 for all young adults and one-third that of the $24,800 average earned by those with a college degree. In fact, those who receive a graduate level education earn more than $1 million more over their careers than those who do not.

From an economic development perspective, the alarming high school dropout rate in Los Angeles County is a lifeblood issue. Not only are nongraduates much less employable – hurting our ability to attract and retain businesses, and compete in a globally competitive economic environment – but high school dropouts are also less likely to spend on home and vehicle purchases, and they support fewer local businesses. They contribute on average about $60,000 less per person in taxes to state and local governments over a lifetime according to the alliance.

With the dropout rates being so high, and growing, we are essentially giving up on an entire generation of young people. By doing so, we have an economic, ethical and equity crisis on our hands. So what can we do?

First, we must admit we have a serious crisis and get involved. In Los Angeles County, a growing grassroots movement is taking hold around a 52-point plan for economic development to make our communities healthier, more prosperous and sustainable places to live and productively work.

This plan was developed with input from more than 1,070 stakeholder organizations. The first goal is to prepare an educated work force, with its first objective being to ensure successful education outcomes at every level so that all students, at a minimum, achieve grade-level proficiency and graduate.

Second, we must make education a community priority by connecting schools and communities, by meaningfully engaging parents, and by realizing that funding education is not a cost, it’s an investment. The Rand Corp. estimates that there is a 16 percent to 17 percent rate of return for every dollar invested in education.

Third, we must take concrete steps to improve our schools, including:

• Invest in increased metrics to measure student performance and outcomes. Just as important, hold teachers accountable to those performance measurements and student outcomes. Teachers are the means to successful student outcomes. We must empower teachers and give them the resources and tools they need.

• Improve access and increase funding for early childhood education. Research has shown that individuals who receive a quality early childhood education are more likely to become productive, contributing citizens and less likely to lead a life plagued by violence and crime. Starting children off in the right direction is crucial to successful educational outcomes throughout their K-12 experience.

• Prepare students to succeed in higher education programs as well as in the workplace. Having a solid K-12 education includes expanding the number of arts, language, technical and general education offerings. Students must be both college and career ready.

• We must ensure that our young people are being educated. Make no mistake, it is in all our best interests. Here are three facts you can take to the bank: The Labor Department estimates 90 percent of new high-growth, high-wage jobs will require some level of postsecondary education. California’s economy would accrue an additional $40 billion over the lifetimes of just one year’s dropouts, according to the alliance, if those students could be converted to graduates. Businesses rank having an educated, skilled work force as the No. 1 determinant on where to locate. Now, it’s time to ensure that our students stay in school.

Gary Mangiofico is associate dean of fully employed and executive programs at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management and is the former CEO of Los Angeles Universal Preschool. Bill Allen is CEO of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

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