SID SALTER: Without Pre-K, dropout epidemic will continue

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – Back in 2007, I wrote extensively about how Mississippi was attempting to deal with what was then called an “epidemic” dropout problem in Mississippi public education.
The 2006 Mississippi Legislature created the state Office of Dropout Prevention. Legislators also called on the state’s schools to increase their graduation rate to 85 percent by 2019.
The legislation was a bipartisan expression of utter frustration over the lack of educational attainment and the scourge of the dropout problem in state where lawmakers were directing an overwhelming percentage of the state’s general fund budget to K-12 public education.
The 2006 law also required each school district to implement a dropout prevention program by the 2008-2009 school year for the state office to approve.
The proposal set the following formal goals:
• Increase the state’s graduation rate for grades nine through 12 from 61.1 percent to 85 percent by the 2018-19 school year.
• Reduce the state’s dropout rate from 26.6 percent to 13 percent by the 2012-13 school year.
• Reduce the state’s truancy rate of 31.8 percent to 16 percent by the 2012-13 school year.
The high rate of high school dropouts in Mississippi, with some school districts exceeding a 45 percent dropout rate, erodes the state’s economy.
The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems found that for every 100 students in the ninth grade in 1992 in Mississippi, only 59 graduated from high school and only 13 graduated from college.
A 2005 study by the Southern Education Foundation found that each Mississippian had $9,570 less annual income than the average American and that 53 percent of the difference in per-capita income between Mississippi and the nation is due “solely to the state’s lower levels of education.”
Did the legislative initiative work? The answer is a mixed bag. Educational advocates have challenged state reporting of high school graduation rates compared with federal or independent numbers.
Has progress been made? Yes. The state’s dropout rate that was 26.6 percent in 2006 was down to 17 percent by 2010, according to the State Department of Education. In 2009, the rate dropped as low as 16.8 percent.
The Alliance for Excellent Education projects that failure to finish high school is costing Mississippi young people $1.6 billion in lost lifetime earnings. Moreover, the cost to the state’s economy is likewise projected to be staggering.
Failure to finish high school by these Mississippi impairs $100 million in home sales, $8 million in auto sales, 500 new jobs, and $5.2 million in increased state tax revenue.
Dropout prevention was a worthy legislative investment back in 2007. The problem remains a worthy legislative investment today and it’s one of the reasons that dramatic educational changes like charter schools and other innovations are gaining traction with the taxpayers.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004

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