From NBC's Athena Jones
President Obama announced $900 million in grants, part of his 2011 budget, to help turn around the nation's lowest-performing schools.
While health care and the economy have dominated much of the policy talk in the capital this past year, education reform has been a recurring focus for Obama since the campaign and one his administration wants to draw more attention to.
The president often speaks about the importance of having a highly educated workforce to compete globally in the 21st century "knowledge economy." By 2020, Obama wants America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
"High school dropouts are more likely to be teen parents, more likely to commit crime, more likely to rely on public assistance, more likely to lead shattered lives," the president told the crowd gathered in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hall of Flags. "What's more, they cost our economy hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of a lifetime in lower wages and higher public expenses."
The event was hosted by America's Promise Alliance, an organization founded by Former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He and his wife Alma also spoke at the event.
"The education crisis is the civil rights issue of our generation," read the program for the event. "We must come together for a more equitable, hopeful, and prosperous future for every child and for our nation."
The president noted that more than a million students -- nearly a third -- do not finish high school in the U.S. and stressed the particularly high dropout rates among blacks and Hispanic.
Calling teaching "one of the most important jobs that we have in this country," Obama said failing schools must be held accountable, with poorly performing ones closed, principals replaced or faculty fired, as a school committee voted to do last week at a failing Rhode Island high school where only 7 percent of its 11th-graders were deemed proficient in math in 2009.
The $900 million would go to 5,000 of the nation's lowest-performing schools over the next five years to help improve student achievement. The president's budget also includes a $100-million program aimed at increasing college-level, dual-credit and other accelerated courses in schools, allowing students to earn a high-school diploma and an associate's degree simultaneously.
"This is a problem we cannot afford to accept, and we cannot afford to ignore," Obama said. "The stakes are too high -- for our children, for our economy, and for our country. It's time for all of us to come together -- parents, students, principals and teachers, business leaders and elected officials from across the political spectrum -- to end America's dropout crisis."