Friday, July 18, 2008

Drop outs: Is the legislature listening?

High dropout rate puts California's future in peril

By Betty T. Yee - The Bee

California is failing our next generation as the doors shut for our young people to have a shot at a good quality of life.

Few would disagree with the notion that the state's competitive edge depends on a highly educated, highly skilled work force. However, California's investment in public education is woefully inadequate to meet this challenge, failing to provide the necessary support to reduce the high school dropout rate and to fulfill the promise of college for every eligible student.

This week, state educators predicted 24 percent of California students will drop out during high school. The dropout rates are alarming for African American and Latino students – 42 percent and 30 percent, respectively. While these figures are based on the most accurate student attendance data collected by the Department of Education, they certainly are not the first indication that California's public education system is in crisis.

According to the California Dropout Research Project in its August 2007 study, one out of every four adults in 2005 had not graduated from high school. Approximately 120,000 students do not attain a diploma by age 20 each year. And with each annual cohort of dropouts, California taxpayers foot the exorbitant bill for these young people – to the tune of $46 billion, or 2.9 percent of the annual gross state product, over their lifetimes – because they are more likely to be unemployed and pay no taxes, resort to criminal activity and rely on publicly funded programs for basic subsistence and health care.

On average, high school graduates earn more than high school dropouts, about $290,000 more over a lifetime; they also pay $100,000 more in federal, state and local taxes. High school graduation also contributes to a reduction in crime: by 20 percent for violent crimes, 11 percent for property crimes and 12 percent for drug-related crimes. A high school graduate is 68 percent less likely to be on any public assistance program than a high school dropout.

It's a no-brainer – not investing in strategies to reduce the number of high school dropouts does not save us money, but in fact costs California taxpayers exponentially more to address the consequences of low educational attainment.

The picture gets bleaker when one looks at public education in our urban core. In the America's Promise Alliance report released last month, almost half of all public high school students in the United States fail to graduate and are eight times more likely to land in prison. The report cites only 57.1 percent of public high school students in the city of Los Angeles graduate.

Our investment in public education has also failed on the commitment in the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education to provide college access to every eligible student. The race is on: According to the California Business Roundtable and the Campaign for College Opportunity in its April 2006 study, one in three new California jobs by 2022 will require an associate degree, bachelor's degree or higher, up from one in four jobs today. Coupled with the retiring college-educated baby boomers, the number of new jobs that will require college degrees is equal to the population of San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose combined.

California's economy is heavily focused in specialized, knowledge-based occupations and industries, with technical services, education and health care topping the industries in need of the largest number of highly educated workers. Small increases in the number of highly educated workers yield significant economic benefits: a 1 percent increase in the share of population with a bachelor's degree and a 2 percent increase with an associate degree or some college result in the creation of 174,000 new jobs and $1.2 billion more in annual state and local tax revenues.

The data are clear: College access is key to producing the large numbers of engineers, teachers and nurses to meet California's work force demands, generate additional much-needed tax revenue and keep the state's competitive edge. We already have seen the hemorrhaging of manufacturing and information sector jobs to other states and countries, and can ill afford any further high-paying job losses. Additionally, we must not forget the need for vocational educational programs to address the ongoing needs for highly skilled trade and craft workers, technicians and service workers.

The studies cited above should serve as a wake-up call for state policymakers about the critical need to increase our investment in public education in California. Moreover, policymakers should compel every single Californian to shoulder the responsibility for averting this statewide economic crisis by fairly spreading the burden for contributing to the cost of public education and other government services based on income.

Our global economy is changing rapidly. We are running out of time to save our state.

If California is to maintain its place among the world's top 10 economies, we must increase our investment in public education now: Our industries demand it, our tax system depends on it, and our children deserve it.

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