For many years, educators and policymakers at state and national levels have been trying to persuade young people to finish high school. Dropping out without a diploma, it is widely recognized, is associated with lower wages and scant economic prospects over one's lifetime. Consequently, we have regularly seen advertising campaigns by public officials and private industry encouraging teenagers to stay in school and improve their life chances.
Yet the U.S. Department of Transportation recently indicated that a high school diploma is not especially important. Last fall, when Congress passed legislation to improve airport security, it federalized the nation's 28,000 screeners of passengers and baggage. The legislation directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to hire, train, test, and deploy those responsible for screening access to our nation's airplanes. The public assumed that the purpose of this legislation was to heighten security.
At first, the FAA said that it would require a high school diploma for those jobs. But when it was discovered that some 7,000 current airport screeners do not have a high school diploma, the FAA reversed course and decided that it would accept a year of relevant work experience in lieu of a high school degree. In other words, the current workforce, which allowed massive security lapses on September 11, is good enough. Even though its starting salaries will be doubled (to an average of $30,000), the workforce will remain unchanged and its qualifications will not be increased.
There are two problems here: (1) the legislation is a sham if it does not raise minimal standards for those who hold these sensitive jobs; (2) the FAA's decision sends a message to students that it is not necessary to have a high school diploma to get a good job, even one that is crucial to the nation's security.
Why should screeners have a high school diploma? Teachers and principals will tell you that school completion indicates a certain level of persistence, self-discipline, literacy, and accomplishment. Young people who lack the motivation to complete their high school studies are not the best pool from which to select those who are expected to read passengers' faces and behavior, to assess the contents of their bags, and to do so quickly and accurately.
How can teachers persuade their students to stay in school and get their diploma if the FAA says that the degree doesn't matter? To his credit, Senator Charles Schumer of New York has complained about this unfortunate decision.
Members of the American public were led to believe that the federalization of the workforce would raise standards for those entrusted with their safety. The FAA's willingness to suspend educational standards for one-quarter of airport screeners sends a negative message not only to airline passengers but also to the nation's students and their teachers.