While almost all of California’s political attention this winter is focused on the state’s seemingly never-ending budget crisis and the severe cuts it will cause in most government programs, few of us have noted the alarming growth of the high school dropout rate in California. The appalling state of our secondary education system should, in fact, concern all of us. Given today’s ever more competitive and sophisticated job market, in which money, materiel, and corporations are rapidly relocating to places with ever-more skilled workers willing to work for ever-less money, every one of us trying to find a job in California will be affected by the economic ramifications of a disturbingly permanent underclass of uneducated citizens.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recently argued that the dropout rate is bolstered by the illegal immigration which sees hundreds of thousands of pupils dumped into California public schools each year after getting little or no preparation in their home countries — a fact which many critics of our immigration system are quick to point out. But this is not just a problem with low-income immigrants in California. For example, even the most recent state-reported figures show that 37 percent of all African Americans who started high school in 2006 had dropped out by last June.
In his recent comments on the state of the California education system, Torlakson decried the $18 billion in budget cuts imposed on public schools over the last three years of ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure, which saw a lengthy and inconclusive battle over education spending play out in the state legislature. But he said nothing much about dropouts, except to emphasize that the 22 percent drop-out rate observed this year was an improvement from last year. Former Superintendent Jack O’Connell attributed this improvement to a new data system which allows the state to track students better when they move from district to district. Students no longer simply disappear when their parents relocate, as the average California family does once every seven years.
But the 22 percent figure, based only on high school enrollments, neglects to account for an even more disturbing problem in the state education system: middle school dropouts. As middle school dropout rates have increased steadily over the course of the past ten years, the effect of kids dropping out younger seems to have canceled the effect of kids staying in school when they are older.
What all of this means is that despite the state’s new tracking system, the actual dropout rate is just about what it was 10 years ago, when educators first became aware of its scope.
Traditional conservative solutions such as the promotion of absolute school choice are not the answer to this problem. Yes, the school “liberation” movement represents one of the more promising solutions for our educational woes in the long term. The rise of charter schools and the proliferation of private schools over the past few years have created an unprecedented level of school choice in California. But dropout figures have not changed significantly.
The solution must come from within each district at the local level, as schools will have to offer both remedial classes for immigrant and low-income children needing to catch up and more stimulating curriculum to keep kids from leaving out of boredom or frustration. But this problem cannot be solved by schools, spending, superintendents, school districts, or any number of education bureaucracies unless parents and students find the self-motivation and involvement necessary to achieve a successful education. We need innovative thinking, new offerings, involved parents and quality teaching that can combine to keep children interested in getting the education they now need more than ever. Until then, many of California’s students will lose as everyone stands still at the impasse.