Providing All Students With a Quality Education Is a Moral -- and Economic -- Necessity

As President Obama and the U.S. Congress wrestle with deficit reduction and seek a long-term solution for robust economic growth, I encourage them not to overlook the positive economic impact of a quality and equitable education for all students. By addressing the large gaps in high school graduation rates between white students and students of color, the nation could see large fiscal gains while improving the lives of millions of young Americans.

A recent Alliance for Excellent Education report, Inseparable Imperatives: Equity in Education and the Future of the American Economy, demonstrates how increasing the education outcomes of students of color and Native students can boost the economy in the form of higher earnings, job creation, and increased consumer spending. Simply put, demographics determine economics.

Students of color and Native students currently make up the majority of the student population in 12 states; 10 additional states are close behind. Currently, however, many students of color and Native students are being left behind. In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, students of color are, on average, 20 percentage points less likely to graduate from high school than their white peers.

As these students become the majority and enter the increasingly globalized workforce, the nation must ensure they receive an education that prepares them to compete in the twenty-first century. These students' futures depend on it; and now, more than ever, the future of the U.S. economy depends on it.

The nation's economy is two-thirds consumer driven, meaning that the majority of its economic growth is dependent on every citizen's ability to spend at increasing levels. In order to increase purchasing power, workers need to be competitive in today's job market, which is nearly impossible without a high school diploma.

Based on the latest jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school dropouts are 1.5 times more likely to be unemployed than high school graduates and 3 times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates. When employed, high school dropouts earn approximately $9 per hour, compared to $13 per hour for individuals with a high school diploma and $25 per hour for college graduates. To be prosperous in this century, the United States must have more than a $9-per-hour economy.

As students of color are quickly becoming the largest group of consumers, their ability to be major drivers of individual and national economic growth depends upon the quality of their education. For example, if every state had reached the America's Promise Alliance's goal of graduating 90 percent of its students, many of whom are students of color, for just the Class of 2011, America would have more than 750,000 additional high school graduates, which would likely result in more than $9 billion in increased annual earnings, more than $22 billion in increased home sales, and 47,000 newly created jobs.

Many of these additional or "new" graduates would have pursued education past high school and would earn more during their lifetimes. These additional high school graduates would spend more than those who did not graduate, thereby increasing America's economic productivity and growth.

As President Obama and the U.S. Congress negotiate sustainable solutions for the economic issues facing the nation, I urge them to take into account the inextricable effect that a strong education system has on a successful economy.

Historically, inequality in education has been a moral issue, but the nation's moral failure to provide all children with an adequate and equal education did not incur a noticeable economic cost. This is no longer the case. Today, providing a quality, equitable education to all students is no longer solely a moral imperative, it's also an economic imperative.