What Do You Think?
A Foolish Inconsistency
David Kirkpatrick dismisses the claim of opponents to school choice that this means less students in the public school system. Used with permission of the author.
by David W. Kirkpatrick
Friday, December 12, 2003
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
David W. Kirkpatrick Senior Education Fellow
One of the objections frequently raised by opponents of school choice is the loss of students from the public system. It may not be the students that are missed as much as the reduction in state subsidies which generally are based in part on ADA - Average Daily Attendance. Local revenues, primarily from the property tax, have no such direct relationship to enrollment. Yet you hear much less from the education establishment about school dropouts, which also lowers average attendance and state subsidies.
While exact figures may vary slightly from year to year, both in percentages and actual numbers, it is estimated that more than 700,000 students drop out per year.
That's an average of 4,000 students leaving for each of the 180 days in a typical school year. Put another way, that's more dropouts daily than the number of casualties at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Or lives lost on 9/11. Yet the school establishment says little about it.
In Pennsylvania more than 18,000 students dropped out each year in the 1990s, an average of 100 per school day. While the per-student state subsidy varies from district to district according to a complicated formula based on the district's personal income and property wealth per student, the average across the state is in excess of $3,000 per student. That's a loss of more than $54 million to the state's 501 school districts. A report last year said that the rate had increased 29% from 1985 to 1995, while that in the nation at large had been holding steady or decreasing slightly during that same period. Where is the outcry?
In individual schools, the attrition rate can be horrendous. For at least one Pennsylvania high school it has been reported to be in excess of 80%. In more than one Pennsylvania district the dropout rate exceeds 50% - for the entire district. In one Washington, DC high school a few years ago, there were 836 sophomores at the beginning of the year - but 172 were gone by Thanksgiving. The junior class had but 399 students, and the senior class a mere 240. If the figures are consistent across the two year span from 10th to 12th grade, that means nearly 600 students, or more than 70% of the sophomore class were gone before graduation.
Perhaps the ultimate, however, was in an August 2000 report of a high school in the South Bronx, in New York City. It was said that the high school graduated 65 students that year. There probably are a number of high schools around the nation with graduating classes of that size. What made the South Bronx high school distinctive was that its 65 graduating seniors were the survivors of a 9th grade class which three years before had a student body of 1,000.
Two years ago Johns Hopkins University researchers said 40-50% of the central high schools in the nation's 35 largest cities graduate less than half their ninth graders. It's not uncommon for them to graduates less than 30% of their ninth graders. Ninety percent of such high schools, said the researchers, are in just six cities: New York, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
Yet these districts say little about such attrition, or the loss of money that follows, if statistics are accurately reported. Sometimes, in fact, the public schools are not only glad to see some students leave, they actively encourage it. This was demonstrated by a story in the October 2003 issue of Teacher Magazine. An elementary school principal in Florida, sent a memo which referred to some of the students who didn't do well in school and, especially, on the state mandated tests. Attached to the memo was a note saying, "These are the kids we've got to get 'outta' here."
A classic example of lack of concern for the loss of students in normal circumstances versus the potential student loss because of school choice occurred in Cleveland. When the scholarship program began in 1996 it involved fewer than 2,000 students. There was much complaining about the alleged negative effects which this loss of students would cause.
Yet, in 1972, the Cleveland public schools had about 150,000 students. By 1997, they had about 75,000 - an average loss of 3,000 student per year for 25 years. This annual loss was 50% greater than that from the state tuition program and, cumulatively, more than 37 times greater. Half as many students means half as many state dollars, half the number of teachers staff, half the potential membership and dues for the district's teachers union, etc.
By 1997 the district had suffered a cumulative loss in the billions of dollars in state subsidies, and was now losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The loss of 75,000 students was, and is, practically unnoticed. Yet a loss of only 2,000 students because of the student scholarship program was alleged to be very harmful to the district.
Ask them to explain that one!
# # # # #
According to William Bainbridge, president of School-Match, "92% of U.S. schools report they're above average." Nick Turner, "Make Educational Choices With School Sites," p. A1, Investor's Business Daily, August 20, 1999