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Friday, February 15, 2008

A dose of reality on our dropout rate

No one knows the exact figure. But, best guess, about one in three high school students in the class of 2008 will drop out of school before graduating.

The dropout rate is even higher in high-poverty urban centerssometimes surpassing the 50 percent mark.
In recent years, officials in a number of states have proposed a worthwhilebut somewhat simplistic solution: Raise the age of compulsory school attendance to 18.

Sounds good in theory. But there are concerns: First, although 27 states have raised the legal dropout rage to 17 or 18, there’s spotty evidence that this mandate has had any real impact in the dropout rate. After all, how do school officials keep uninterested and restless older teenagers in school if they don’t want to be there?

And how many schools seriously track down truant near-adults and "compel" them to return to school?
There also are budget implications to this approach. Officials in Maryland recently estimated an older dropout rate would require the state’s high schools to find classroom space for as many as 21,000 students.

They’ll also need to find 1,100 more teachersin a state with an acute teacher shortageand come up with about $200 million in extra operating costs.

Certainly the investment is worthwhile. It’s a personal tragedy when a student drops out of school. And there’s a monetary price tag for society, as well: A study in North Carolina concluded that the dropouts of a single year cost the state $169 million annually in lost sales tax revenues, higher Medicaid costs, and more tax dollars poured into prisons.

So I understand why there’s interest in raising the legal dropout age.

But let’s be honest: A legislative mandate alone isn’t going to solve the problem. What we need are reforms to the large number of schools identified last year as "dropout factories." What we need are early intervention efforts that ensure every student entering high school is prepared for ninth grade. And what we need are school programs that keep kids engaged in their education.

So we’ll see how this plays out. It would be nice if state lawmakers put some money behind these good-sounding mandates. Alas, the record for such sound legislative policy is mixed, at best.

Del Stover, Senior Editor

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