Article Published in the Orange County Register
The pendulum swings affecting education from nursery school to graduate school — everything from restoring phonics to rethinking affirmative action — often originate in the Golden State.The nation watches and learns from California.
Unfortunately, educators and the general public may learn negative lessons from how California keeps key statistics about dropouts and spending. Add up total expenditures for K-12 education, divide by average daily attendance, and you get a figure of $7,937. That’s how much California is spending per public-school pupil.
But the state reports its per-pupil spending at $6,025. That derives from the so-called Proposition 98 outlay — so named for the voter initiative specifying the share of state general funds and local property taxes education must command.
The problem with that, as fiscal expert Lance Izumi of the Pacific Research Institute points out, is that it omits from the per-pupil calculation the $11 billion the schools receive from lottery proceeds, federal grants, and capital funds.
Izumi is not a Lone Ranger. Recently, the Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento noted that Governor Gray Davis is proposing Proposition 98 funding of $6,313 per pupil next year. “A more comprehensive measure of per-pupil spending is total funding from all sources,” the LAO stated. “For the budget year, the Governor proposes total funding from all sources of about $8,200.”
School officials understandably believe they could use more money for many good purposes. But seizing on falsely low numbers is not a good way to make the case. The California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is pushing a ballot initiative that would require the state to spend massive new sums in order to close what it contends (using NEA numbers) was a $1,272 gap with the national per-pupil average of $6,734 last year.
True figures, though, show California at or above national averages. Misguided initiatives like the CTA leadership’s could put taxpayer advocates in the mood to seek a refund.
Meanwhile, California’s dropout rates also are grossly understated, giving the impression that public schools do a splendid job with their limited funds.
For the 1997-98 school year, official data for Los Angeles show dropout percentages, broken down by ethnic group, ranging from 4.3 percent for Hispanics and 4.7 percent for blacks to 1.5 percent for whites.
On the surface, those numbers look impressively small. The problem is, they mean next to nothing. As San Francisco physician and education-reform activist Alan Bonsteel has charged, such single-digit numbers constitute nothing short of “a cover-up” of an attrition rate exceeding 50 percent in troubled districts. That’s right, between the ninth grade and the senior year, the Los Angeles schools lose close to half their students.
In 1994, 48,500 youngsters began their high school years in L.A.. Four years later, only 25,843 remained. And some of those 25,843 had moved into the district, thus statistically taking the place of some dropouts. Using an adjusted rate taking into account net population growth in the area, L.A.’s actual dropout rate was 53 percent.
As Dr. Bonsteel notes, this is little more than simple arithmetic. How many students enter the school system? How many of those same kids exit after having earned a diploma or a vocational certificate?
But under the single-year calculation used by California and other states, students who drop out of school during the summer and fail to return are not counted as dropouts. Schools can wipe a dropout from the books simply by transferring his records to an alternative program without regard to whether he actually shows up for it or not. A lot of young people just disappear from the radar screen.
A “cohort” method of calculating dropouts would present the public a more honest picture. Such an approach, as with the graduation rate, counts the students enrolled in the ninth grade and stacks that figure against the number of students who graduate from high school four years later, with an adjustment for net population gain or loss during that period. In 1998, the graduation rate for California schools as a whole was 67.2 percent. Thus, the true dropout rate was 32.8 percent.
That same year, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin boasted — just four days before she faced a tough primary vote — that California’s dropout rate had plunged to a record low of 3.3 percent. Bonsteel and Bonilla countered that such politically “self-serving lies” must end, noting that California’s “catastrophic dropout rates” explain why the state’s employers reject 9 of 10 applicants for entry-level jobs and why the state’s prison population is exploding.
Confronted with the fallacies in California’s dropout reporting, Superintendent Eastin recently has stopped boasting of low dropout rates. Last December, she commented to KTTV (Fox 11, Los Angeles) reporters doing a documentary on dropouts that she had “long speculated” about the inaccuracies. And she added that failure to track students’ progress through the system to graduation day and beyond is a “dirty little secret” of the education world.
California could redeem itself as a trend-setter by standing for truth in reporting education statistics.
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