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The most serious problem we face in the nation-bar none-is that education is bypassing a large segment of our population.

When big numbers of inner-city children drop out of school or get killed or put in jail before they come anywhere near graduating, and when many of the kids who try their best are accused of "selling out" by their peers, you know we're in trouble.

Our country cannot function on all cylinders unless everybody has an equal opportunity to get good jobs. Without at least a high school education, our young people are being shut out of mainstream society.

Richard L. Thomas, chairman of First Chicago Corp., put it bluntly the other day when he was honored by Crain's Chicago Business as Executive of the Year, "Our schools are in a perilous state. Most of the students who do graduate are not well-educated, and thus companies located here are having an increasingly difficult time finding qualified workers.

"In fact, companies like First Chicago are put in the position of having to offer basic classes in English and math to bring entry-level workers up to minimum skill standards. And this is an unfair burden to place on businesses which are already paying high taxes to support public education."

Mr. Thomas indicated Chicago could be put at a competitive disadvantage if it doesn't get its educational house in order. But in truth the situation is just as bad in New York and in most other major cities across the country.

In fact I can easily visualize cities pouring big bucks into education as their major corporate development tool. A well-educated work force is becoming the deciding factor in persuading companies to relocate. City and state ad campaigns are touting the availability of a well-educated workforce to draw corporations to their areas. So far the ads are coming from smaller, less densely populated states and municipalities, but the first major metro area that's able to make the claim of better educated workers will hit the jackpot.

Education is definitely becoming a growth industry. A new retail chain, aimed at students, parents, teachers and school administrators, sells everything from notepads to classroom furniture. "I believe we're seeing a social change in which parents feel they have to be involved in the education of their children," Teach Smart's CEO told The Wall Street Journal.

But you know help is finally on the way when the education gap is being blamed for stoking the flames of inflation. With business booming in many parts of the country, middle-sized companies are finding it downright difficult to find qualified workers. It's feared that these companies will be forced to raise the ante in order to hire the workers they want, which could lead to higher inflation.

The way it seems to work in our country is that when a situation is perceived as an abstract social problem nothing much gets done. But when that abstract social problem starts to clog the forward progress of our economic machinery, attention must be paid.

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