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Kohl Column: Back To School

Op-Ed

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Kohl Column: Back to School

As summer comes to a close, children across Wisconsin are anticipating the start of another school year. While this is usually an exciting time, for many families it is being overshadowed by concerns about the economy, jobs, and health care. But, as we emerge from this recession, the start of a new school year offers a critical opportunity to invest in our nation's future. For America to remain strong and prosperous, we must ensure that our children are prepared to meet the critical challenges that our country will face in the years ahead.

To compete and win in today's global economy, most Americans will need college or technical education in order to learn a skill that will allow them to secure a well-paying job in order to provide for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, too many of our children are choosing to quit school before they even earn a high school diploma. In recent years, the dropout rate has reached crisis proportions. Astonishingly, the current generation of Americans is the first in history to be less likely to graduate from high school than their parents. This trend is unsustainable for our children, our state, and our country.

Wisconsin has a relatively high graduation rate of 86%, but that rate drops to only 46% in Milwaukee. Such an achievement gap cannot continue, as the costs are too high. For our children, it means a lifetime of lower wages and worry about adequate employment, housing, food, and health care. For our state, it means increased costs for social services and an increased likelihood of crime. And for our country, it means continuing to fall behind other nations in academic achievement, innovation, and economic growth.

We must all do our part to fight the dropout crisis, and the fight must begin long before high school. From a very early age, children must see and understand the value of an education, both at home and at school. Parents and teachers are critical in this endeavor.

We must also ensure that students have equal opportunities to achieve, no matter their neighborhood, income, or race. This is something I have worked on throughout my time in the U.S. Senate. I am proud of the investments Congress has made in public schools and in financial aid for college, and I look forward to working with the Obama administration to strengthen these priorities. I am also optimistic about proposed new investments in community colleges and early childhood education.

To truly fight the dropout crisis, we must also try new approaches to education and pursue innovative strategies to help at-risk students stay in school. For example, through the Fast Track to College Act, I have proposed federal support for “dual enrollment” programs that allow students to earn high school and college credit simultaneously -- and tuition-free. Research funded by the Gates Foundation has shown that these programs are effective in the fight to keep at-risk kids in school, as these students can be motivated by the challenging curriculum and the opportunity to save both time and money on a college degree. Equally important, these programs introduce students to the college environment and allow them to earn credit through real college coursework. This experience bolsters their confidence and skills, and shows them that they can successfully complete a college degree -- in less time and for less money than they once thought possible.

As our nation recovers from this recession, we have an opportunity to create a 21st century school system in which all students transition seamlessly from high school to college. A high school diploma is no longer enough in today's economy, so we have to find new ways to ensure that students go on to postsecondary education. Such a change will require cooperation between leaders at all levels of public education and government, and it will require the ongoing commitment of teachers, parents, and students.

So as the new school year begins, we should remember the critical importance of education and renew our fight against the dropout crisis. We must all do our part to help our children succeed, beginning in preschool and continuing through college. The status quo is not good enough -- for our children, our state, or our country. Let's take this opportunity and work together to build a stronger foundation for America's future.


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