RALEIGH – A new $7 million grant program will likely have little short-term or long-term impact on North Carolina’s high school dropout rate, according to a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.

“These grants represent the latest misstep from a General Assembly that has spent 10 years repeatedly trying to address the troubling dropout problem with no apparent success,” said report author Terry Stoops, JLF Education Policy Analyst. “Before legislators invest more taxpayer money on unproven dropout prevention programs, they should take the simple, yet overlooked, step of determining why students in North Carolina drop out in the first place.”

The dropout problem is “one of the most serious challenges facing the state’s public schools,” Stoops said. In 2006-2007, North Carolina public schools recorded 23,550 dropouts. That number yielded a dropout rate of 5.24 percent, the highest rate in seven years. “Fewer than 70 percent of the state’s high school students graduated in four years,” Stoops said. “Slightly more than 70 percent graduated within five years.”

“The numbers are worse when you focus specifically on black and Hispanic students,” he added. “About 63 percent of black students graduated in five years, and just 55 percent of Hispanic students graduated in five years.”

North Carolina has seen little benefit from efforts to penalize dropouts, including a 1997 measure to take away their driver’s licenses, Stoops said. Nor has the state made gains based on a 2005 law requiring research into the dropout problem, he said. “Now lawmakers have decided to throw more money at the problem.”

More than 300 groups applied for dropout grant funding this year. Sixty ended up winning grants ranging from $25,000 to $150,000. “Unfortunately, the committee that made the grant selections used some strange logic,” Stoops said. “For instance, larger school districts that already have dropout prevention resources won a large chunk of the grant money. In fact, the five largest school systems in the state won about a quarter of the grants.”

More than half of the money headed to school districts or individual schools with lower dropout rates than the state average, Stoops said. “Polk County won a $100,000 grant despite having one of the state’s lowest dropout rates,” he said. “Wake County collected four grants totaling nearly $450,000 despite having a dropout rate considerably lower than the state average. One Wilmington high school received $105,000 despite having the lowest number of dropouts of any New Hanover County high school. Do these schools and school systems truly require new money to combat the dropout problem?”

Stoops found other oddities while reviewing grant winners. “Some of the programs cost thousands of dollars per participant, including a teacher-focused UNC-Chapel Hill program that will cost nearly $8,450 per teacher,” he said. “In most cases, the grant programs also fail to address the scale of the school or district dropout problem. Plus many of the grants target programs that will be hard to assess.”

Grants rarely focused on research-based dropout prevention strategies, Stoops said. “The state is awarding school dropout prevention grants for programs to teach step dancing, hire life coaches, and force teens to read a book called ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens.’”

Even some lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle see the potential for problems, Stoops said. “One Democratic state representative complained to her colleagues that schools really needing help with dropout prevention first need to learn how to ‘work the system’ of winning state grants,” he said. “Another lawmaker said he wondered whether the state might get the same results by spending nothing on dropout prevention.”

“The state’s history with school dropouts suggests these lawmakers have valid concerns,” Stoops said. “North Carolina will have a hard time reducing the dropout rate by throwing money at programs that don’t answer the basic question: Why do students drop out of school?”