Admitting the problem is the first step on the road to recovery. That's why State Superintendent Jim Rex deserves full credit for drawing attention to South Carolina's persistently low public high school graduation rate.
Too bad he has waited two years into his term, and too bad he is still being dishonest about the actual size of the problem.
During a well-scripted town hall meeting at Greenville's J.L. Mann High School on May 28, 2009, Rex conceded that South Carolina has "some areas and some districts" dragging down state achievement averages. He went onto characterize certain areas and districts in the state as "dropout factories," noting that students there "don't have a shot at the American Dream."
Several days later, Rex took to the editorial page in papers across South Carolina and admitted that a statewide 73.3 percent on-time graduation rate is "appallingly low and completely unacceptable in today's economy."
Rex is wrong. According to the non-partisan national experts at Education Week Magazine, South Carolina's on-time public high school graduation rate is actually 55.6%! That's 18 percent lower than Rex's claim. The number can be easily found in Education Week's 2008 "Diplomas Count" report, published both in print and online.
Rather than finally work to address this crippling economic and academic problem, Rex has been using editorial pages and townhall meetings to insist his schools successful graduate 73.3 percent of students, not just 55.6 percent. He argues that the larger figure comes from a semi-official method of calculation recently adopted by the National Governor's Association.
This is not a minor dispute or petty case of semantics.
These numbers are real students who are dropping out of high school all across South Carolina.
Specifically, the difference is that 73.3 is the percentage of high school students who successfully complete ninth grade and then go onto to receive a full diploma three years later, while 55.6 is the percentage of students who complete eighth grade and then earn a diploma four years later.
In March of 2008, the New York Times actually singled out South Carolina as having one of the nation's largest gaps between actual and reported rates of student graduation, but Rex continues to use his 73 percent sound bite.
In other words, 17 percent of students in a statewide class of students are lost every year between eighth and ninth grade. That's over 9,400 students each year who don't even make to the end of their freshman year. Jim Rex is trying to capitalize on the tragic figure to score political points or draw attention away from the severity of the dropout problem.
The social and economic impact of a 55.6 percent graduate rate is almost unfathomable. For decades we've known that high school dropouts have lower lifetime earnings, higher rates of incarceration, shorter lifespan and higher levels of unemployment than their diploma holding peers.
Some parents and grandparents still feel comfortable that their local school or district is radically bucking the Statewide trend. Mathematically, that's a tough assumption to make if the South Carolina average is so dramatically low. Still, these parents and grandparents must realize that their state tax dollars will be siphoned off in ever-greater amounts to pay for corrections, social services, adult education, and other government programs dropouts will be inevitably utilizing in the future.
Now that Jim Rex has finally begun to recognize this crisis, we can only hope he gets honest about its scope and looks to innovative, outside the box (and frankly outside the System) solutions to combat it.
Randy Page is president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government.