Education Is Our Business
Last month the D.C. Chamber of Commerce devoted its annual business summit to the city's public schools and to ways that businesses in the city could assist them. The chamber focused on the schools because the D.C. economy depends on their quality.
On the surface, the D.C. economy appears to be in good shape because job creation is outstripping that of equivalent U.S. cities. However, finding D.C. residents who are qualified to fill these jobs has become a problem. Unlike most jurisdictions, the District has more jobs than residents.
Unfortunately, suburbanites with advanced educations and skills, not city residents, are being tapped to fill many positions. Between 2000 and 2005 Washington added more than 30,000 jobs, but the number of employed D.C. residents actually fell by about 13,000. Simply put, D.C. residents are not participating in the economic growth of their city because they lack job skills to do so.
Forty-one percent of the city's unemployed are between the ages of 20 and 29, which is hardly shocking given that 44 percent of D.C. adults have less than a high school education and about 38 percent cannot read at even the fourth-grade level. If the District were a state, on that measure it would rank dead last in the country.
Strengthening the city's public schools is a prerequisite to building a competitive resident workforce. About 60 percent of the 47,000 new jobs projected for the District in the next decade are expected to require more than a high school education. Unless city residents acquire the skills to compete, the gap between job requirements and job skills could lead to a social disaster for Washington, with ramifications for the crime rate, the infant mortality rate and the health of residents.
On the economic front, the transfer of salary and wage income from the District to the suburbs is substantial and growing. In 2005 each job outsourced to Maryland or Virginia is estimated to have cost the District $80,865. If the District's share of jobs created since 2000 had held steady, rather than declining, the District would have gained nearly 9,000 new resident workers instead of losing more than 13,000. Almost 22,000 more District residents would be employed. Multiply that figure by the $80,865 that each job represents, and the District probably has lost almost $2 billion in potential income each year, money that could have generated more than $107 million in income tax revenue annually.
To start a turnaround on the schools, the District and businesses should work together to develop a certificate-of-employability program, which would certify that a student has the skills to go to work. The city's summer jobs program also should be revamped to include a summer jobs institute. Businesses further should coordinate a volunteer bank to match the needs of schools and students with business resources.
But these ideas are only a beginning. For far too long, the school system has been caught up in useless haggling among the D.C. School Board, the unions and elected political leaders. This must stop. Worse, the system has been a sinecure for a bloated bureaucracy. This must end, too.
Until now, business leaders have stood by and neither demanded better results nor offered coordinated assistance. Business leaders typically are impatient, demanding accountability and results. They have a statistical method for measuring results. That approach can grate on educators who work in a field in which process usually trumps short-term statistics.
Business leaders and educators must make learning one another's languages a priority so that they can set objective goals for the schools together. The District cannot afford to keep frittering away opportunity.
-- Stephen W. Porter
is a senior partner of the law firm
Arnold & Porter and chairman of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.