The politics of the graduation rate

The politics of the graduation rate

- in Fitzsimon File

Not too many years ago, the slash and burn anti-government crowd used to rail against every kind of public investment, from human services to parks to public schools, all part of the government they loathe and want to shrink so they can “drown it in the bathtub,” as Grover Norquist famously put it.

But the government dismantlers kept finding that people supported many of the things that the public sector provides, nothing more so than public schools. That prompted a change a change in tactics for some of the anti-everything politicians who realized they can’t get elected if they advocate slashing budgets of schools and laying off teachers.

State Republican legislative leaders, who for years complained about the level of spending on public education, criticized Democrats this summer for cutting education funding $400 million to help address a $4.6 billion budget shortfall. 

The same lawmakers and GOP Chair Tom Fetzer also blasted Democrats for raising taxes and cutting services for the mentally ill, ignoring the obvious question about how they could balance the budget with lower taxes and fewer cuts to education and human services.

Their new approach to talking about public schools is to insist that the schools they never really supported are now failing completely and that it’s the Democrats fault that kids are not getting the education they deserve.

The education establishment has given the pretend supporters of public schools plenty of ammunition in North Carolina, most notably a state standardized testing system that has been riddled with problems and mistakes and the lack of investment in low-performing schools and the communities they are in. 

The most common talking point in the misleading and revisionist campaign is the state’s admittedly woeful graduation rate. The 2008-2009 School Report Card complied by the Department of Public Instruction shows that three in ten ninth graders don’t earn a high school diploma four years later. The numbers are even worse for children of color.

Several national education groups say the state’s graduation rate is even lower, around 63 percent. Either way, the numbers are scandalous, condemning one-fourth to one-third of a generation to a lifetime of struggles.

The Alliance for Education says that the total lost lifetime earnings for the 46,000 kids who dropped out last year in North Carolina comes to $12 billion. If the state could reduce the dropout rate for males by just five percent, the Alliance says the state economy would benefit by $233 million from increased earnings and less spending on the criminal justice system.

Nobody disputes that dropping out of high school paves the road for future problems.  And nobody is happy with the state’s current graduation rate, whether it is 70 percent or 63 percent. (Though it is not out of line with most other Southern states. They are struggling too.)

But that’s where the consensus ends. Republicans want to use the numbers as political sledgehammers to divert attention from their long antipathy toward public education while blaming Democrats for its shortcomings.

Democrats readily acknowledge the dropout problem but so far propose only small targeted programs for schools in the form of dropout prevention grants to address it.

A 2007 report from the Center for the Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins included some basics about dropouts that elected officials ought to consider, like the most common reasons kids leave school, from life events like a family crisis or being labeled difficult or dangerous and suspended repeatedly.  A recent News & Observer story reported that North Carolina is among the national leaders in rates of school suspensions.

Other students leave because they are frustrated at their lack of success or lost without the support they need at home or at school.

The Center’s report said that schools with a high concentration of poor and under-achieving students make dropping out more likely and leads to high teacher and staff turnover that makes learning more difficult.   Let’s hope the new majority on the Wake County School Board is paying attention.

The report also confirms what many studies have shown, that poverty and the struggles that come with it are major contributors to a student’s decision to drop out of school.

None of it is rocket science, but the solutions don’t fit neatly into soundbites on the campaign trail or under one budget line in the appropriations bill.

It takes bigger thinking, more investments in the programs that support families at home and services that help at-risk kids at school and after it. The decision to abolish the state’s successful after school program for at-risk kids isn’t generally considered an education cut, but it should be.

A renewed conversation about what it will take to keep kids in school is overdue. And just as importantly, it’s time to loudly and publicly reject efforts to use the low graduation rate for political gain by people who have never supported public schools in the first place.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.