How California can improve its plunging graduation rates

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Vicki Alger
Research Fellow, Independent Institute
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      Vicki Alger

      Vicki E. Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is currently working on a book for the Independent Institute examining the 30-year history of the U.S. Department of Education.

      She has been Associate Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in Sacramento, California, and the Director of the Goldwater Institute's Center for Educational Opportunity in Phoenix, Arizona. She received her Ph.D. in political philosophy from the Institute of Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas, where she was an Earhart Foundation Fellow, and she has lectured at universities nationwide, including the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

      Dr. Alger’s research focuses on education reform measures to improve academic accountability at all levels, promote a competitive education climate, and increase parents’ control over their children’s education. She is the author of more than 30 education policy studies, co-author of Short-Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California and Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice, as well as Associate Producer of the documentary “Not as Good as You Think: Myth of the Middle Class School.” Dr. Alger has advised the U.S. Department of Education on public school choice and higher education reform. She has also advised education policy makers in nearly forty states and England, provided expert testimony before state legislative education committees, and served on two national accountability task forces. Dr. Alger’s research helped advance four parental choice voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs in Arizona in 2006, as well as the state’s first higher education voucher, and she provided expert affidavits as part of the successful legal defense of educational choice programs for low-income, foster-care, and disabled children since 2007.

      In 2008, Dr. Alger’s research inspired the introduction of the most school choice bills in California history—five in all—and her research was used as part of the successful legal defense of the country’s first tax-credit scholarship program in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 (Garriott v. Winn Arizona). Dr. Alger’s research and commentary on education policy have been widely published and cited in leading public-policy outlets such as Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, Education Week and the Chronicle of Higher Education, in addition to national news media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Investor’s Business Daily, Forbes.com, Fortune, Human Events, La Opinión, and the Los Angeles Times. She has also appeared on the Fox News Channel, local ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS affiliates, as well as news radio programs across the country.

The average national high school graduation rate, from 1997 to 2007, rose 3.1 percentage points to 68.8 percent, according to a recent report from Education Week. California’s graduation rate, meanwhile, dropped 4.7 percentage points to 62.7 percent. Only Nebraska and Nevada posted worse declines, and the problem is not limited to California high-schoolers.

Research from UC Santa Barbara’s California Dropout Research Project (CDRP) shows that in 2006-07, nearly 124,000 middle and high-school students dropped out. In fact, California public schools produced one dropout for every three graduates that same year according to CDRP experts. New findings from the U.S. Department of Education offer some hope.

According to the Department’s latest program evaluation released last month, students using the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships are more likely to graduate from high school. The program, enacted in 2004, provides scholarships worth up to $7,500 so low-income public-school students can attend local private schools where tuition averages $6,600.

Simply offering students from underperforming D.C. public schools Opportunity Scholarships improved their likelihood of graduating high school 13 percentage points. That likelihood jumped to 20 percentage points among students who used the scholarships According to University of Arkansas researcher Patrick Wolf, who led the U.S. Department of Education evaluation team:

These results are important. . . because high school graduation is strongly associated with a large number of important life outcomes such as lifetime earnings, longevity, avoiding prison and out-of-wedlock births, and marital stability. . . The Obama administration has; quite correctly, made increasing high school graduation rates a top education priority, especially for disadvantaged students. . . Fortunately, we now know of an initiative that has done exactly that—the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The official program evaluation released in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education found that D.C. Opportunity Scholarship students are significantly outperforming their public-school peers. “[S]tudents who were offered vouchers to attend private schools scored higher on reading tests compared to students who were not offered vouchers. These gains were equal to three months of additional learning,” the U.S. Department of Education concluded.

Extrapolated over a child’s academic career, that amounts to about two full years of additional learning. Further, of the 11 program evaluations conducted by the department, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was “one of only three programs to show positive results, and showed by far the biggest achievement gains.”

These findings are all the more impressive because the maximum scholarship amount of $7,500 is about a quarter of what D.C. public schools spend per student – as much as $29,000. In spite of all that spending, according to the District’s own evaluation, fewer than two out of 10 of public-school students are functionally literate in reading and math, and around half drop out. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan admitted that the “D.C. [public-school system] has had more money than God for a long time, but the outcomes are still disastrous.”

Researchers also found high levels of parental satisfaction with the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Compared to their children’s previous assigned public schools, parents of students using the scholarships reported greater involvement in their children’s education, improved safety, stricter discipline, smaller classes, and more rigorous curricula. The benefits also include effective support services, including tutoring and mentoring, as well as the convenience of high-quality schooling options close to home.

Parents reported high levels of satisfaction with their children’s academic progress, achievement, and their motivation and enthusiasm toward school. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program also boasts tremendous parental and community support with more than 70 percent of registered D.C.-area voters in favor of the program.

Improving education outcomes for all students—regardless of socioeconomic background—begins by giving them a chance to escape failing schools for ones that best meet their unique, individual needs. Currently, nearly 30 percent of California public schools and school districts are not performing and have been identified for Program Improvement. Policy makers should continue supporting efforts that have shown progress at turning around failing schools. No parent should be expected to sacrifice their children to sub-par schools.

Bucking trends is nothing new to the Golden State, but when it comes to high-school graduation rates, California students are the ones getting kicked. To improve graduation rates tomorrow, California policy makers need to give students more choices today.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is PRI Education Studies Associate Director.