Opinion: Daily Journal

Not Just More of the Same

RALEIGH – North Carolina has a serious problem with high-school dropouts. But this is not a case where the proper response is, “There ought to be a law!”

Among the many scandals plaguing our state’s public-education system – the fact that the end-of-grade testing program is an expensive sham, for example, and the fact that lawmakers keep appropriating millions of tax dollars to educational programs of dubious merit – is that North Carolina has been one of the greatest offenders in the country in misreporting the graduation rate of high-school students. Department of Public Instruction officials provided the federal government a “graduation rate” statistic that was essentially a fraud. One might even say it was a conscious effort to deprive the public of the “honest services” of state education personnel.

But to warn that only 65 percent of North Carolina ninth-graders complete their high-school education on time is not to say that simply passing a state law compelling high-school attendance until the age of 18 is either a necessary or sufficient condition for addressing the problem. Unfortunately, that’s what a new committee appointed by House Speaker Jim Black seems headed towards recommending for the 2007 legislative session.

Requiring potential dropouts to stick their fannies to their chairs may sound reasonable. It fails, however, to get at real issues – and has the potential to cause more harms than it alleviates.

For one thing, given the abysmal quality of education in many of our most troubled high schools, forcing students to spend two extra years in them is unlikely to improve their knowledge and skills very much. It isn’t going to undo the past pedagogical malpractice that left so many of them years behind in basic skills once they reached high school. It is likely to make some of them more restive, disruptive, and disobedient. Attempting to quell them will take resources away from serving the students who want to learn.

Make no mistake: I want to see many more of our young people complete their high-school education. But that education must be meaningful, signifying that graduates have actually learned high-school material. Forcing students to attend through age 18 will, I fear, inevitably create pressure to keep North Carolina’s graduation standards at their current low level, so as not to fail large numbers of freshmen, sophomores and juniors.

I have a truly shocking, mind-boggling suggestion as an alternative. Let’s expand school choice. Let parents of troubled high-school students be able to choose from among more educational options – be they district-run alternative schools, charter schools, private schools, religious schools, or home schools – and take at least some of their public funding with them to the institution of their choice. For the public options, make it 100 percent of a per-pupil allotment of operating and capital funds, perhaps adjusted for risk factors. For the private options, taxpayer-funded scholarships for high-schoolers from poor households (in the cause of championing positive language in policy debate, no one can accuse me of being a slouch, er . . .) and tuition tax relief for other North Carolina families ought to do the trick.

Let’s harness the power of entrepreneurial initiative, private innovation, community commitment, shared values, and competition to address the needs of our underserved students. Let’s not force them to suffer through two more years of an educational monopoly that has manifestly failed them – starting with a failure to be honest about its performance.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.