GPEE speaks to candidates about issues in education

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Leaders of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education urged political candidates to think about what they can do to help more people into the work force.

About 20 candidates and community leaders from throughout the state attended the Education Policy Forum on Tuesday at the University of Georgia's Gwinnett campus. Sponsored by the Georgia Partnership and the Georgia School Boards Association, the forum focused on the role education plays in economic development and the changing dynamics of school governance.

"Education is work force development, which is economic development," said Steve Dolinger, the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public schools in Georgia through research, advocacy and communication. "We know there's a big dollar value tied to education, and we want to give you some hard information to support that."

People who do not complete high school have lower lifetime earnings, which results in less economic growth for the community, Dolinger said. While Georgia's graduation rate has been climbing, the state still has 20,000 children a year who drop out of school and aren't ready to go into the work place.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from the first quarter of this year show the unemployment rate for people with less than a high school diploma was 14.5 percent. Those who are employed full time earn about $448 a week, or $23,296 annually.

People with a bachelor's degree or higher, however, earn about $1,140 a week, or $59,280 annually. The unemployment rate for that group was about 4.4 percent.

In the past two years, the unemployment rates for people of all educational levels has doubled. High school dropouts, however, have continued to have the highest unemployment rates, Dolinger said.

The economic impact of high school noncompletion in 2005 was $18 billion, Dolinger said. For the metro Atlanta region, it was $4.2 billion. Increasing the graduation rate would generate additional income, which would help the economy, he said.

While the number of workers surpasses the number of jobs for low-skill and high-skill jobs, that's not the case for middle-skill jobs, Dolinger said. Persistent shortages of middle-skill workers inhibit industry growth, he said.

Dolinger said he thinks Georgia is moving in the right direction. The state now has five essential blocks in place -- higher standards, a rigorous curriculum, a clear accountability system, a statewide student information system and leadership training.

It's important for candidates for the state legislature and local school boards to understand their role in insulating the "birth to work pipeline," Dolinger said.

"I see that as your job," he said.