How California can improve its plunging graduation rates

Vicki Alger Research Fellow, Independent Institute
Font Size:

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.

Vicki Alger