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Funding education is an investment in the future

By Staff
Johnny Mack Morrow
Amidst all the worrisome news over the economy, the transition of administrations, and the tough state budget predictions, there was a bit of good news that was lost in the shuffle.
A national report showed that Alabama illiteracy rates dropped by 40 percent in ten years, from the mid 1990s to the middle of this decade.
The rates were higher than any of us would like, but at least we are improving at a rapid rate. The report from the National Center for Education Statistics showed 15 percent of Alabamians lacked basic literacy skills, down from 21 percent, and our state for the first time is on par with the rest of the country at 14.5 percent. 12 states had illiteracy rates that were higher than Alabama's, while 36 and the District of Columbia had lower illiteracy rates.
This will have a huge impact on the economics of our state for decades to come. The days where manual labor jobs requiring little or no reading or mathematical skills are gone.
Workers who can't read can't get even the most basic jobs in today's economy, certainly not in any of the major industrial projects that are currently being built in our state.
Basic literacy is no longer the minimum benchmark workers need to survive. A high school diploma is now required for many jobs, and it certainly is for any Alabama-based automotive manufacturer or supplier. Economic figures bear out the absolute need for graduating high school.
A recent report from the Southern Education Foundation showed that a high school dropout in 1956 made 51 cents for every $1 that a college graduate did. In 2002, students who dropped out of high school made less than 29 cents for every $1 the average college graduate earned.
For families headed by a high school dropout, median earnings declined by nearly a third between 1974 and 2004.
The fact is, students who don't finish high school have less and less chance at the American dream, and it will cost all of us in lost future productivity.
Estimates are that Alabama's dropouts from the Class of 2007 would earn an additional $6.7 billion in their lifetimes if they had completed high school. If Alabama were to decrease its dropout rate by 2 percent and then sustain that annual rate of improvement over two decades, the state would gain more than $190 million in government savings and revenues.
If the state also increased by 2 percent annually the number of high school dropouts who return to get a diploma, the net gains would approach $400 million.
Experts agree that our drop out rate is the number one economic threat to Alabama
60 percent of Alabama students finish high school and Alabama has bounced between 42nd and 47th in graduation rates for years. High school dropouts are three times more likely to be chronically poor, are less likely to have permanent jobs, are more likely to add to welfare rolls, and are at a higher risk for drug abuse or going to jail.
There is good news on the horizon. Over the past few years Alabama's elementary reading scores have jumped higher than any other state, the highest in the history of the test.
Successful elementary students will make more successful high school students, and we'll see a decrease in the drop out rate as well as our illiteracy rate.
This happened because we've made the investment in Alabama education over the past six years. We fully funded the Alabama Reading Initiative, added more teachers to the classroom and reduced class sizes.
We hired more reading coaches, and increased technologies and curriculum that helps improve teaching and learning.
That is all now at-risk as we see education revenue tumble in the economic downturn. If things do not change, we could see a 20 percent reduction in education funding in the span of just two years, virtually wiping out all the hard-won gains.
As the legislative session begins next month, we must look at education as an economic investment, just like we did in attracting major automotive companies.
No one is immune to belt tightening in these tough times, but we should remember that every dollar we invest in our classrooms will pay us all back ten-fold in the future.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.