The persuasive power of graduation rates

Editor’s note: This post comes from Dr. Alan Bonsteel, the president of California Parents for Educational Choice and an associate with the American Center for School Choice, which recently joined an alliance with redefinED.

The nation’s staggeringly high dropout rates are perhaps the strongest argument for school choice, and state-level school choice organizations can have enormous leverage in wielding this weapon. At one time it seemed that test scores might be that argument, but the public school establishment has been largely successful in dodging that concern, both by using non-secure tests in which the teachers can teach to actual test questions, and by churning out phony studies that falsely claim that the test score improvements seen with school choice disappear once the results are adjusted for the poverty levels of the students.

Graduation rates, however, are far harder to spin, and the public intuitively accepts the observation that when families can choose the school right for them, the investment that is made and the sense of community that results has profound benefits in getting kids safely to graduation day.

Our organization, California Parents for Educational Choice, launched the first salvo in this war in 1999, when we got newspapers across the state to report on their front pages the reality that we were losing a third of our kids to dropping out. In 2002, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute took the issue to the national stage. In 2004, George Bush and John Kerry both used the correct figure of one-third of our kids dropping out of high school in the presidential debates, and the war for public opinion was largely won.

Almost all state departments of education, however, are still reporting falsely low dropout rates. It is here that local school choice groups can use their leverage, as it turns out that, while Democratic politicians still usually oppose school choice, most will at least favour accurate dropout rates being made available to the public.

In 2008, for example, California passed SB 651 by Democratic State Sen. Gloria Romero, which reformed dropout rate reporting in our state. As a result, we now have the nation’s strongest dropout reporting system, although still one that needs much work. The more accurate dropout rates generated by that law were key in 2010 and again this year in passing our Parent Trigger law, a concept that is now sweeping across the nation.

Passing a new law may seem daunting to members of a state school choice organization, but it turns out to be easier than it seems to persuade even the old guard that supports the status quo that the public is entitled to the truth on this crucial issue.

The dropout issue has turned out to be the school choice movement’s secret weapon — the equivalent from World War II of the bazooka, the cracking of the Nazi enigma code, and the Flying Fortress bomber all rolled into one. Let’s not hesitate to keep using this breakthrough weapon to free our children.

Avatar photo

BY Special to NextSteps