President Obama’s State of the Union address will reportedly focus on growing the economy and jobs while shrinking the deficit. There are several ways these goals can be achieved, but in the long term the goal of growing the middle class must include strengthening publicly funded education. To do so we must reduce the high school dropout rate. In fact, there should be federal government incentives to bring recent drop outs back to the classroom to ensure they have the requisite skills to get a job that affords a middle-class life style.
President Obama should encourage young adult job training programs for construction, technology and service industry jobs. With incentives for school districts/adult education programs that would knock on doors, advertise and appeal to those 16-22 year olds who have dropped out of high school, we could redirect these individuals toward becoming productive members of society. A national effort to bring dropouts back to the classroom for specific job skill development would be a meaningful economic stimulus and a win-win for society.
Incentives would be increased or decreased based on quantifiable metrics. Districts and municipalities that demonstrate success would have their processes shared openly. The corporate sector that pitches into the successful formula would be highlighted on government websites and by the media. Society would benefit from these efforts in major ways.
Young adults who drop out of school become a long-term liability to a healthy economy. Individuals who earn family wages (support self and family) from good middle-class jobs increase tax revenue to local, state and federal governments. This in turn reduces deficits, as tax revenue increases and federal assistance lessens. According to many sources, these now productive lives create opportunities for a positive cycle of growth.
Looking at the beginning of the education continuum, the President should use the 2013 State of the Union Address to expand Head Start and Early Head Start across the nation, as well as index by region the income criteria for a family to qualify for its services. The Sequester must be squelched, because in its ugly details Head Start is cut—a $3 million hit in Santa Clara County. This would have a deleterious effect on the quality of life and future earnings for these children, resulting in hundreds of layoffs.
Universal access to quality preschool could be the most important action to build a strong and lasting middle class. Its time has come. A litany of studies indicate a $4-7 dollar benefit to society and the economy is gained for every $1 dollar spent on investments in early childhood education. It is right thing to do by all measures.
On Friday, the SCCOE Board of Education will host a grassroots effort to bring universal access to quality preschool education to all families. The 15 meeting participants convening for the first time are from many public and nonprofit agencies. Los Angeles and San Francisco are already leading the way to achieve this goal, and Santa Clara County will be right on their heels.
Growing the economy and the middle class, while shrinking the federal deficit, can only be done if public education is the chief vehicle to drive the effort. Giving all children an educational head start on kindergarten and working on returning the high school drop- outs to productive and meaningful lives are two ways President Obama can increase his legacy among U.S. Presidents.
Lastly, I agree with the Feb. 5th editorial in the New York Times that lambasted President Obama for not using the bully pulpit to promote an appropriate labor agenda for the times. “In his first term—a time of persistent high unemployment, weak job growth, stagnating wages and rising income inequality—Mr. Obama neglected a basic labor agenda. He now has a chance to take corrective action,” read the Times editorial.
Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.