As you may have heard, there’s a special session going on, and the elected types up at the Capitol continue to fight about how to cut property taxes and pay for public schools. We’ve heard a lot of talk the past few weeks about tax rates, teacher pay raises, local enrichment, school-funding equity, and the importance of educating our future work force. Yet one of the gloomiest and most widely misunderstood problems facing our education system—the number of kids dropping out—isn’t getting much play.
Part of the problem is a lack of agreement on how many kids are actually dropping out. According to official state figures, we don’t have much of a dropout problem. The Texas Education Agency reports that only 0.9 percent of students in seventh through 12th grades drop out of public school. No, that’s not a misprint. The high school dropout rate, the TEA maintains, is 3.9 percent. (Very few middle school students drop out, which partly accounts for the watered-down 0.9 figure.)
Back on planet Earth, any teacher or principal and most public interest groups will tell you that the dropout rate is much higher. Even TEA officials admit some of their numbers can be misleading. Other groups say the statewide dropout rate is between 20 and 40 percent. Texas ranked 43rd nationally in 2001 in the percentage of teens dropping out of high school—a rate one-third higher than the national average, according to a report by the Austin nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities.
TEA officials contend, in their defense, that they have to report dropouts as defined by law. Instead of harping on the high dropout rates, TEA officials often point to the cheerier four-year graduation rate, which, the agency says, was 84.6 percent in 2004. (To arrive at this figure, officials don’t count students getting high school equivalency certificates, students who claim to transfer to another school, or students who spend extra years in high school.) But even the graduation rate is inaccurate, according to some reports. The conservative Manhattan Institute recently reported that only about 70 percent of Texas high school students are graduating. Another recent report, by the more progressive Economic Policy Institute, put the graduation rate at about 80 percent. Minorities are much less likely to graduate than white students—the Manhattan Institute says about 50 percent of blacks and Latinos graduate. Not surprisingly, the TEA offers a rosier view on this one, too, contending that the minority graduation rate is about 80 percent.
Don’t expect much action on these issues out of the special session. The lone proposal dealing with dropouts was buried in the text of a bill recently passed by the Senate. If it survives the legislative process, the provision would allow schools to establish stronger anti-dropout programs. The effort, though relatively weak, has been the Legislature’s only real attempt in recent years to stem the number of kids leaving school without a diploma.
In the Lege’s defense, it’s hard to enact a policy solution when you don’t really know how extensive the problem is or what the causes are. As with most problems, understanding is the first step. That won’t happen until lawmakers focus on the issue and direct the TEA to use an agreed-upon method that accurately counts the number of students who drop out.
Nothing will improve unless we’re straight with ourselves about how many students are really dropping out. No matter how much money we put into schools, we can’t help kids who aren’t there.