Opinion

The dropout problem

South Carolina has a dropout problem. But giving parents vouchers to send their children to private school is not the solution.

A study released last week by the South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank, concludes that dropouts cost the state $100 million a year and that one way to reduce those costs would be a "modest school choice" plan. The study's findings received the enthusiastic backing of Gov. Mark Sanford.

By some estimates, South Carolina has the highest percentage of high school dropouts in the nation. Perhaps as few as half the students who enter high school as freshmen receive diplomas within four years.

State education officials note that many students get their diplomas within five years or earn their General Equivalency Diplomas later. Nonetheless, the high number of dropouts -- about 3,100 a year, according to the study -- is a serious drag on the state's economy. As the study notes, dropouts pay less money in taxes and are more likely to end up unemployed, on the state's health insurance tab or in prison.

The study even offers a dollar estimate on what one year's class of dropouts will cost the state: Nearly $5 billion over 50 years. More private school students, the study concludes, would significantly lower the number of dropouts.

Putting a set dollar figure on the cost of dropouts -- including estimates of how many might go to jail or end up unemployed -- is a dubious exercise. Too many intangibles are involved.

In evaluating this study, it also is important to consider the source of the information. The South Carolina Policy Council has long been an advocate of private school vouchers. And the Friedman Foundation, founded by economist Milton Friedman, which the Policy Council enlisted to do the study, has been lobbying for private school vouchers for more than 50 years.

So, it is no surprise that the study would focus on vouchers as a way to reduce dropouts. But state education officials, including Education Superintendent Jim Rex, remain opposed to vouchers. Rex intends to reintroduce a plan to allow school choice within the state's public school system, which was rejected by the Legislature this year, but he has no intention of including private schools in the plan.

Meanwhile, on the local level, the Rock Hill school board last week gave Superintendent Lynn Moody the go-ahead to research and implement programs to help reduce the dropout rate and improve student achievement. Moody has proposed 10 ideas that would cost around $500,000, which would come from the district's discretionary fund.

Proposals include: Allowing older students who still are in middle school to take high school-level science and catch up on credits; establishing an "alternative learning environment" for at-risk students; starting a summer bridge program to help the adjustment from middle to high school; and adding math and English teachers at Phoenix Academy, which offers alternative scheduling for students who want a nontraditional approach to classes.

If Gov. Sanford and the South Carolina Policy Council are sincere about reducing the dropout rate, these are the types of programs they should be promoting and funding at the state level. Rex also has offered a detailed plan for improving the educational system that he compiled after talking with teachers, administrators, representatives of the business community and parents across the state.

Both state education officials and local boards can offer more relevant information about the dropout problem than advocacy groups pushing vouchers. This report may pinpoint the problem but real solutions are to be found elsewhere.

IN SUMMARY

Local school boards have interesting ideas about reducing number of dropouts.

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