It is not news to anybody that South Carolina public schools have a huge problem with students dropping out.
Earlier this year, Education Week's "Diplomas Count" survey estimated South Carolina public high schools graduate only about 55 percent of all students.
This number works out to an astounding 158 drop outs a day from public high schools. That means every day enough children drop out of school to fill up a Boeing 737 jet.
Despite the magnitude of the drop-out problem, South Carolina education bureaucrats have been reluctant to embrace any truly innovative policies to help reverse the situation. After two years of being in office, Jim Rex finally made a feeble attempt to address the drop-out problem by announcing an "Attendance Awareness Month" in October.
At the rate of 158 drop outs per school day, that translates into more than 56,000 drop outs over the course of the two school years since Jim Rex has served as superintendent of education.
Shortly after Rex's lack of leadership in the expanding drop-out crisis, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings had to come to South Carolina to personally announce a new method of calculating school graduation rates.
Why single out South Carolina? Because Rex's administration has the nation's highest disparity between reported graduation rate and the actual number of students who receive a diploma four years after entering high school.
Now the national spotlight of humiliation is finally forcing Rex to acknowledge the need for significant changes in South Carolina public schools.
According to The State, the S.C. Department of Education partnered with several private groups to put on a drop-out prevention summit in Columbia. Among the solutions discussed in the summit were:
• developing methods to identify potential drop-outs.
• helping struggling students meet the state's academic standards.
• sharing best practices for drop-out prevention.
A statement by Jennie Rakestraw, dean of Winthrop's College of Education, makes these solutions look anemic and inadequate, and should cause grave concern for parents across the state.
"We're starting to see more regular middle-class kids drop out. In general, high schools have not been able to be attractive places for kids to be. We need to look for new answers."
One of the "new answers" that has been alternately ignored and condemned by the SC Department of Education is not new at all: school choice.
Giving parents authority to determine the best, most fitting school for their child is a big first step. Fifteen states across the nation have thriving choice programs offering parents such options. Choice rewards and encourages involved parenting, a key component to any school improvement. It also promotes greater school accountability and encourages both competition and innovation in instruction.
Only when Rex gets serious about education policy -- rather than just public relations -- will the shameful drop-out problem be resolved.
Neil Mellen is communications director for South Carolinians for Responsible Government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.