How California can graduate more students

On June 5, Education Week magazine released “Diplomas Count 2008: School to College.” The report finds that three in 10 students who enroll in California public high schools fail to graduate. The statistics mask a more dismal reality, but there is a way the Golden State can improve.

The results of “Diplomas Count” are worse for males and ethnic minorities. Fewer than two-thirds of males graduate from high school, while slightly more than half of California’s black and Hispanic students receive their diploma. These graduation rates align roughly with the national average, placing California in the middle of the pack with states such as Rhode Island, Michigan and West Virginia. Such middling figures allow school district officials to claim that their failures are part of national challenges and not the result of California policies, such as setting the bar too low.

California requires only credits for graduation, and of the 45 states that attach a credit requirement to graduation, no state requires less than that of their students. The California High School Exit Exam tests students at an eighth-grade math and reading level and, to pass, requires no more than 60 percent on either section. As a result, more than 55 percent of California State University freshmen require remedial instruction in math or English. A “challenging student population” is a popular scapegoat.

Hispanics represent a large share of California’s K-12 students and they are disproportionately represented in the lowest levels on state and national achievement tests. District officials also blame a lack of funds, as Education Week’s “Quality Counts 2008” reports California spending $7,081 per pupil, placing the state 46th in the nation for in-classroom spending. Evidence supports neither demography nor underfunding as responsible for California’s failures.

Arizona shares a similar demographic and both states serve a challenging student population with a comparably high Hispanic and recent immigrant population. Arizona spends even less than California — only $6,232 — ranking 48th in the nation. It also enforces much tougher graduation requirements than California — 20 instead of 13 credits — and it recently passed even more rigorous requirements for the class of 2009.

“Diplomas Count 2008” reports that Arizona graduates a greater percentage of high school seniors in every major demographic category. This gap is especially pronounced among black and Hispanic minorities where Arizona graduates up to 14 percent more high school seniors. Further, over the past five years, Arizona schools have improved overall graduation rates by 6 percent while Golden State schools have improved a meager 0.9 percent.

How does Arizona manage to serve similar populations and achieve better results with less taxpayer money? The difference is school choice.

Arizona’s School Improvement Act of 1994 remains the nation’s strongest charter school law, according to the Center for Education Reform, and the 509 open charters in Arizona give parents a range of options. Arizona also offers a tax credit for residents who donate to charitable organizations offering scholarships to students to attend private schools. In addition, the state minimally regulates home-schoolers while guaranteeing home-schooled students equitable access to the state’s public colleges.

Charter schools in California receive $3,000 less per pupil than traditional public schools, according to one estimate, and controlling for population, California parents have fewer than one-sixth the number of charter schools to choose from per student. California offers no tax credits for education-related expenses, and just last month a bill that would have offered such credits to the parents of private-school students died in committee. A California court has recently restricted parents even further by ruling that those who homeschool their children must be accredited by the state.

California would do well to follow the example of its eastern neighbor. Choice counts more than money or background in determining student progress into higher education and beyond.

Ian Randolph is a policy associate in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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