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Will Congress Take on Another Ruptured Pipeline?

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June 28, 2010 02:25 pm

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Two months in and still the issue dominating the Obama administration, the Congress, and the media is the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Every day brings new developments, including the potential impact hurricane season could have on the spill and BP creating an immediate $20 billion fund to handle damages. Everyone knows this is only the beginning.

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Thousands out of work, a rising economic crisis, blackened beaches, and anguishing photos of oil-soaked pelicans drive the constant congressional attention that feeds round-the-clock media attention and vice versa. Suddenly, a previously apathetic American public is focused 24-7 on the environmental and energy disaster in one part of our nation. A vast volume of a vital resource hemorrhaging from a broken pipe is forcing attention and action in a matter unimaginable only a few months ago.

Now imagine the outcry of another major pipeline-related disaster. Different from the Gulf debacle, this one is spewing a vital resource at countless breaks across the country. This other pipeline disaster should be the worst fear of every American-that the pipeline crisscrossing our nation will burst in numerous locations and cause multiple spills. And unlike the BP site-which so far is limited to the southern coastal areas-this second pipeline disaster unleashes its devastation on almost every American community.

Surely, the revelations of this other pipeline break will push Congress to act. For every 100 units entering the pipeline, only 18 reach the end point. Indeed, almost 30 percent of the volume is lost before reaching even the first checkpoint. All along the thousands of miles of pipeline, the damages dramatically manifest themselves.

The economic devastation-hundreds of billions of dollars in lost income and tax revenues-is well documented for this second pipeline. Meanwhile, taxpayers bear the soaring burden of the social and clean-up costs. And like the proliferation of booms along the Gulf coast, no measures short of permanent repair can prevent the spills from permanently ravaging livelihoods and communities.

Unlike the disaster in the Gulf, this “other” break is in the education pipeline. The entity being lost at the many breaks in the pipeline are not barrels of oil, but students. Of the 100 students who will enter the ninth grade this year, 30 will drop out of high school while only 18 will earn a two- or four-year degree. The education pipeline clearly demands major repair at every juncture.

There is a major difference between the pipeline breaks involving energy and education: a positive and productive return. Years of effort in the Gulf will never see a positive return from the oil that reached the beaches and contaminated the waterways. The spilled oil will never be productive, only destructive. Environmental damage control is the best that can be achieved with the oil spill. However, major action taken to fix the education pipeline will not only stop the damage, it will also begin producing immediate returns to the economy and our communities. One recent study documented how cutting the dropout rate in half would yield $45 billion annually in extra tax revenues and cost savings.

When accidents occur, the education pipeline and its oil counterpart differ sharply in the outcome for what they carry. Both contain a vital natural resource. However, when the energy version ruptures, the spewing oil becomes solely a victimizer. But the students leaked from the education pipeline become victims as much as any oil-contaminated pelican or ruined marshland.

The energy and education pipelines also have some common characteristics. Like its energy cousin, the education pipeline’s ruptures bring major negative impacts to the affected communities. And challenged by foreign competition, the U.S. economy cannot sustain continued losses from either pipeline. Given the fast-growing demand for higher-level skills in the U.S. job market, the production of the current education pipeline simply is not sufficient. In fact, Help Wanted: Projections of Job and Education Requirements Through 2018, a report issued earlier this month by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, finds that 63 percent of all jobs will require some level of postsecondary education by 2018.

Analogies can be stretched too far, but the ongoing leakage in the education pipeline has every bit the major national consequences as what is taking place in the Gulf. Engineers confidently predict that even with the worst-case scenario, the Gulf spill will be contained by August. Coincidentally, this is the beginning of the next school year. With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind, still in the discussion stage, can Congress take the extraordinary action in the same time frame to cap the leaks in education’s pipeline?

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