The Dropout Disaster: We Told You So

In 1997, the Pacific Research Institute released the first of its ongoing California Index of Leading Education Indicators, which included a chapter on California’s dropout rate. The Index warned that the state Department of Education missed legions of dropouts who weren’t accounted for in the Department’s crude calculating methods. The Index said that the real rate was at least double the official rate. Now, 11 years later, the Department has released a report that confirms that the real dropout rate is, indeed, about double the previously released figures.

The flaw in the Department’s calculations centered on its failure to ensure that students who didn’t enroll in school, either at the beginning of the academic year or when they supposedly transferred to another school, were counted as dropouts. Since there were massive numbers of such students, policymakers eventually acknowledged that their calculations didn’t pass the laugh-out-loud test.

Individual identification numbers were finally assigned to students so they could be tracked throughout the entire calendar year. Under this new system, using 2006-07 data, the dropout rate is now more than 24 percent, roughly double the rate claimed two years earlier using the old calculating method. The new figure, though, still understates the scope of the dropout problem.

Students who don’t earn a high school diploma but end up getting a GED certificate are not counted as dropouts. Individuals can receive a GED certificate simply by passing an exam, not by taking high-school-equivalent courses. Major studies show that the earnings of many GED recipients are much closer to high school dropouts than to high school graduates. The head of the GED Testing Service has admitted: “[GED recipients] are dropouts. That is what they are. They are dropouts that went on to get a certificate.”

The usual special interests and their elected allies will no doubt use the new numbers as cause to call for higher taxes and spending. Pacific Research Institute’s 2005 book Free to Learn, however, profiles cost-effective successful California public charter schools that have low-income-minority student populations, high student achievement and nearly perfect attendance. Oakland’s American Indian Public Charter School, which outscores the schools in the East Bay’s rich white suburbs, boasted a 99-percent attendance rate. The school has virtually no bureaucracy and channels its limited funds into areas guaranteed to improve student achievement. “Money’s not the answer,” according to the principal, “we need administrators who can manage money.”

Whether the choices are more charter schools or private schools that they can access with tuition tax credits or vouchers, parents and their children should have the opportunity to vote with their feet. Such competitive pressure will force the public school system to improve.

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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