For the better part of a decade, North Carolina’s dropout rate has been on the decline. But this week, in the midst of ongoing bickering between public education activists and budget leaders in the N.C. General Assembly over shortfalls in state funding in recent years, state school officials will present data that marks North Carolina’s first increase in the dropout rate in eight years.
The report, bundled along with a massive presentation that includes suspension and other disciplinary data for the N.C. State Board of Education, marks a nearly 8 percent increase in the state’s dropout count, totaling 11,190 dropouts, in the 2014-2015 academic year. And the state’s dropout rate, which factors in enrollment growth in school systems, was up almost 5 percent during the year.
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson told N.C. Policy Watch that she wasn’t surprised that portions of the state, particularly those that are economically distressed, struggled to maintain declining dropout numbers.
As of last year, North Carolina ranked 46th in the nation when it comes to per-pupil spending, according to the National Education Association, a national group that tracks yearly school funding.
Some school systems lost social workers and counselors among other positions as local funding allocations withered from the state, she said.
“We don’t have as many opportunities to help because of limited resources,” said Atkinson.
As most education experts note, school dropouts make for a complicated, and expensive problem. Atkinson says studies peg the cost to society for each dropout at about $1 million. Dropouts are more likely to be incarcerated, require social services and struggle to find unemployment. They’re also more likely to face long-term health problems.
And students drop out for myriad reasons. Some take jobs outside of school, or leave due to academic problems, suspensions or enrollment in a community college. Other reasons are less clear.
Indeed, North Carolina schools listed more than 40 percent of dropouts in 2014-2015 as leaving due to “attendance,” a dropout code that typically acts as a catch-all noted when more specific causes for dropping out do not apply.
And while, statistically speaking, a one-year increase in the state’s dropout rate does not mark a trend, most officials acknowledge that this year’s increase is far-reaching.
Dropout rates surged in 67 of the state’s 115 local school systems, with some of the highest increases reported in North Carolina’s most economically distressed areas. Additionally, rates were up for all grade levels and, aside from Asians, they increased for all races and ethnicities.
“This is probably a combination of factors, not the least of which is probably funding,” said N.C. Sen. Valerie Foushee, an Orange County Democrat who sits on the Senate Education Committee. “I don’t think we can say any one factor is the cause, but it’s certainly a factor and it’s a considerable factor.”
Among the school systems that reported major increases in dropouts, Sampson and Warren counties had soaring poverty rates of 29 percent and 26 percent, respectively.
Foushee said it’s this component of the report that is particularly troubling. “We have to pay attention to that,” said Foushee. “I would imagine there’s probably some correlation with being able to attract highly qualified teachers in these areas.”
According to Atkinson, addressing these dropouts will require a multi-pronged solution, including additional allocation of teacher resources, professional development and student outreach.
“It’s a cumulative effect,” said Atkinson. “But resources can help us prevent these kids from making the million-dollar mistake.”
Others, however, cautioned against criticizing the legislature too heavily for the news.
Janna Siegel Robertson, a professor at UNC-Wilmington’s Watson College of Education, is co-coordinator of the state’s Dropout Prevention Coalition, a group that advocates for policy solutions to decrease dropouts.
Robertson said it would be “irresponsible” to blame the legislature alone.
“I want to firmly caution that we don’t overreach on this,” says Robertson. “On the other hand, there are things happening that should be on the radar. We’re still completely underfunding schools. There’s a lack of classroom supplies and teachers are leaving every year.”
The news from the report isn’t all bad.
The report notes rates declined in 44 local school systems last year. Also, Newton-Conover City Schools, one of two North Carolina school systems participating in a state pilot program raising the minimum dropout age to 18, reported historically low numbers. In that system, just two students dropped out in 2014-2015, making its dropout rate less than a quarter of a percentage point.
Robertson said studies of raising the dropout age have produced mixed results in other states, but the relative success of North Carolina’s pilot program is encouraging news.
Meanwhile, state officials reported dropout decreases in large school systems such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Wake County Schools, although some public school advocates point out that may only indicate state funding shortfalls will have the least impact on school systems with the resources to blunt the damage.
Atkinson, meanwhile, reasserted that funding shortfalls are likely just one of many sources of the trouble, pointing out high teacher turnover rates in low-performing counties can also be a major obstacle. This week’s report noted almost 8 percent of the state’s dropouts in 2014-2015 blamed a “lack of engagement” with their school and their peers for their decision.
Also, the state reported a slight rise in the number of students withdrawing to attend community college. Next year, the state will begin excluding students who participate in adult high school programs at local community colleges from dropout data, state officials say, in order to appease critics who say it’s overly harsh to label such students as “dropouts.” That means at least a portion of the 1,765 students who listed community college as a reason would not be in next year’s count.
Atkinson said she will not be presenting any formalized policy recommendations this week as a result of this year’s report. And Rep. Rob Bryan, the influential Mecklenburg County Republican who chairs the legislature’s Joint Education Oversight Committee did not respond to interview requests for this story.
But Sen. Foushee said top education lawmakers like Bryan should consider the dropout figures when they mull funding requests from the state’s public schools.
“We need to ensure that the numbers don’t stay here or get worse,” says Foushee. “We need to ensure that the attention is given to whatever factors are causing this, to stop it so that it doesn’t become a trend. To see this as a fluke or an anomaly would be a mistake.”