Thomas Elias: No excuses for delaying school reform |

Thomas Elias: No excuses for delaying school reform

For each of the past six years, it’s been accurate to suggest that students entering high school take a good look around at their classmates, for about one-third of the youngsters they’d see weren’t going to be around on graduation day almost four years later. That many were sure to drop out.

The same warning is valid today.

In all of those past years, state education officials denied that dropout rates were so high. More like 5 percent, they said at first. Later they upped their figure to about 13 percent. But in July, state officials admitted an overall dropout rate of more than 24 percent. That is still a low-balled figure, since state officials do not, for instance, include students disappearing from ultra-high-dropout county continuation schools in the rates from their original districts. But it was enough of an admission to get state Schools Supt. Jack O’Connell and others talking about a crisis.

This is more than a crisis; it’s a catastrophe. Most drop-outs become adults incapable of the critical thinking needed to see through the questionable claims of many politicians and advertisements. Some become gang members and contribute to higher crime rates. Most are doomed to second- and third-class jobs because they lack the training needed to compete in a world of computers and technology. Many become welfare mothers and absent fathers.

Yet, in the almost two months since state officials admitted to this state’s educational disaster, there have been almost no constructive proposals for what to do about it. Which makes it high time school officials got off their collective duffs and started acting.

Wringing hands or asking for new money will not be sufficient to entice students to stay in school. Instead, it will take quality education, relevant classes and engaging teachers.

No, contrary to what some conservatives suggest, school vouchers are not an easy answer. Vouchers might allow some students to escape the worst-performing public schools, but they would condemn pupils left behind in those same schools to a worse environment than ever. That’s because private and parochial schools can accept or reject anyone they like, while public schools must take everyone. So an exodus of the best public school students would surely leave public schools with the worst students and the biggest behavior problems.

Nor would vouchers guarantee quality education for all those who want to leave public schools. The last formal voucher proposal put before Califor- nia voters called for each one to be worth somewhat less than $3,000 per year in tuition payments.

This amount means almost nothing to the top private schools. Many have long said they would refuse to accept vouchers, and not only because vouchers would cover only a small percentage of their usual over-$10,000 yearly tuition. The best private schools fear the strings attached to any government money.

For another, there’s no assurance new private schools set up to profit from vouchers would provide better classes than even the worst public school. Each time vouchers have been proposed in California, proposals sprang up for schools promoting every conceivable ideology from witchcraft to racist bigotry.

So vouchers would be a mistake.

Rather, educators should look to create classes that prepare students for all kinds of jobs, from plumbing to programming, from carpentry and auto mechanics to studying the classics.

Schools also need to find ways to retain students who drop out after failing the high school exit examination once or twice. Some have begun issuing differential diplomas to students who meet all other graduation requirements, but haven’t passed the test.

Legislative proposals to give incentive pay for teaching math, science, special education and reading in the worst achieving schools also have merit, and so does a plan to allow the most talented teacher candidates, as determined by college testing, to bypass redundant credential testing.

But nowhere is there a wide-ranging proposal for any kind of statewide plan to draw students back to school and keep them there.

Yet, this is the most urgent human need now before Cali-fornia. It merits a crash pro- gram, but none is even proposed.

Yes, budget problems make this a difficult time for doing anything new. But if educators keep sitting on their hands, the present catastrophic situation will only get worse. Keep it up and pretty soon, it won’t be merely one-third of entering public school freshmen who drop out, but half or more.

Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at

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