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Tallahassee Democrat: Ed Moore: Let’s not endorse and enable failure

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dropping out at 16 is being sentenced to poverty

What if I told you that Florida has a law in place all but guaranteeing that, if you use it, you will live a lifetime of struggle, be much more likely to spend time in prison and almost certainly place yourself in a position of being dependent upon government services for most of your life.

Would you believe me? How about if I told you that not just Florida, but currently more than 10 other states have this same law on the books?

Well we and they do have this law. It is the law that requires compulsory school attendance only up until the age of 16.

Twenty-eight states have compulsory attendance until 18, and 12 have now set the age at 17. In the Southeastern states, Louisiana is set at 18; Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi are at 17; and North Carolina, Georgia and Florida are still at 16.

We are no longer in an agrarian society where children had to leave school to help on family farms or in small shops, working hard to help support their families. We now live in an expanding economy where the skills of today will prove insufficient to meet the needs of tomorrow and a high-school diploma is fast becoming but the first step in a lifetime of learning. Yet, we cling to the old ways, both allowing, endorsing and enabling the option for many to choose a lifetime of struggle and dependency.

When President Obama gave his State of the Union Address, I patiently awaited some mention of the role of personal responsibility in his words. I waited for discussion about some of the root causes of poverty and dependency, listening intently for words that might describe, in part, why there is a growing income gap and why the roles of the 82 federal programs that are means test driven have grown without end during recent times.

There were no mentions of the rising out-of-wedlock birth rate, single-parent households and most importantly the unrelentingly poor high school graduation rates across our country. How can we expect to address the ills of society when we ignore factors that create options for failure and lifetimes of dependency?

It is estimated that, nationally, more than 3 million students a year drop out of high school; on average that’s more than 8,300 per day. Seventeen of our 50 largest cities have student dropout rates in excess of 50 percent.

We celebrate graduation rates of 75 percent, Florida having just reached that plateau, but fail to consider the societal costs of one out of four entering ninth-graders leaving before completing the base level of education required to even consider having a useful role in the marketplace. There are few discussions, when considering the state of our nation, about the catalysts for poverty and income inequality. The real costs of losing one out of four students before high-school completion are almost incalculable.

It is not a silver bullet to simply raise graduation rates. Many states have recently moved from 16 to 17 or even to 18, yet instituting compulsory attendance only creates new problems and new challenges.

If the programs are not in place much earlier in our middle schools to catch the potential dropouts, we are only, in a sense, capturing students for more days, while ignoring the ailments. A doctor can’t treat a patient by constant blood transfusions without examining the causes of the apparent illness. Likewise our school systems and our welfare programs need to dig deeper and experiment with options.

It is interesting to note that the National Education Association thinks that all states should have an age of 21, or if a diploma is obtained, for compulsory school attendance. It is clear that 16 is far too young, but there also must be in place some innovative and flexible educational options as part of a more comprehensive system of improving our performance as a society.

The costs of ignoring this problem go far beyond placing stress on our social welfare systems. The data show that 75 percent of all crimes are committed by dropouts. They further show that 90 percent of the jobs in this modern economy exclude people without, at a minimum, a high-school diploma. Do the math. If at best we graduate 75 of 100 entering ninth-graders, this leaves 25 people out of 100 who will spend a lifetime finding employment a difficult task, and for at least 15 of those likely an impossible task. In our 50 largest cities, the dropout rate averages 41 percent, so the numbers in our urban areas are even worse when considering pre-determined lifetimes of failure.

It is our choice as a society whether we continue to operate as we have, allowing pathways to immediate failure for many, and then later being faced with the burden of providing services for those we knew from the beginning were destined to fail.

We cannot afford to continue along this path. We must do better.

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