Friday, April 16, 2010

Houston Chronicle calls out Gov. Hair on high school dropouts

Lisa Falkenberg of the Houston Chronicle took Gov. Hair to task this week for not only blatantly misleading the public on dropout rates in Texas schools, but also for failing to do anything about solving the problem. Here is her piece:

  
Politicians running for re-election are generally afforded some leeway on accuracy.
   After all, similar to drinking while driving, speaking while stumping has been associated with any number of side-effects, from impaired judgment to short-term memory loss to feelings of grandiosity.
   Campaign rhetoric is usually judged in this context. But, occasionally, the whopper spewed from the candidate's lips, or those of a spokesman, is so big, it can't be ignored. And it might be dangerous to do so.
   Such was the case last week with Gov. Rick Perry and his spokesman, who claimed, despite voluminous evidence to the contrary, that Texas' dropout problem isn't that big of a deal.
   In the face of years of research showing the rate upwards of 30 percent, and as high as 50 percent in some large urban districts, Perry's camp insisted it was only about 10 percent.
   “The percent of students who enter high school and eventually earn a diploma or equivalent, or who remain in pursuit of a diploma or equivalent, is 90 percent,” Perry spokesman Mark Miner told the Chronicle's Gary Scharrer.
   The number prompted laughter from a few, including Republican state Rep. Rob Eissler, chair of the House public education committee.
   “Yeah. That's not what I base my stuff on,” said The Woodlands lawmaker, who believes the figure is about 30 percent. “You've got to categorize that as a bit campaign rhetoric. If our dropout rate were just 10 percent, I'd be feeling a lot better.”
   The governor, meanwhile, seemed to blame at least part of Texas' embarrassing dropout statistics on untimely student deaths: “If a child dies, they count that as a dropout. I think that's a little harsh,” Perry said.
   Actually, according to the most recent Texas Education Agency figures, the number of deceased students reported in the 2006-2007 school year was 601, a tiny fraction of the more than 134,000 students who walked out of Texas high schools that year without a diploma.
   While there are indeed extenuating circumstances in many cases, such as English-learning immigrant students who may take longer to graduate, most of the excuses Perry and state officials come up with to explain away the dropout rate don't hold water.
   Officials sometimes claim, for instance, that students are transferring to other states, but the fact is that Texas takes in many more students from other states than it loses.
   Last week, Perry and his spokesman were responding to Democratic gubernatorial opponent Bill White's claim that nearly 1 million Texas students have failed to graduate or get a GED on time during the past nine years.
   The former Houston mayor may actually have undercounted the number of dropouts. According to Texas' foremost authority on dropouts, the non-profit San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association, more than 1.2 million students have been lost to attrition in Texas since 2000.
   The total number lost since 1985, the year the state hired IDRA to study the magnitude of the problem, is more than 2.9 million.
   The organization generally calculates that Texas public schools fail to graduate one out of every three students, with the percentage inching up to 40 percent for black and Hispanic students.
   These numbers shouldn't surprise anyone who's been paying attention. They're in line with what a diverse array of groups, from Education Week's Research Center to the Manhattan Institute to the Libertarian-leaning Foundation for Educational Choice (formerly, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation) have found.
   Robert Enlow, president and CEO for the foundation noted that TEA has low-balled the problem for years: “That kind of under-reporting would get me in trouble as a non-profit, I'll tell you that,” he said.
   He said the real danger isn't just diminishing the importance of the issue, but the cost to society. In a recent report, his group calculates Texas' annual public costs associated with just one year's class of dropouts at $377 million, or about $3,168 per dropout.
   “There's no way to put a happy face on it,” said Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Rice University Center for Education, which recently released a report suggesting Texas' high-stakes accountability system may be adding to the dropout numbers. “This is very dire. It's a slap in the face to the families of the kids we're losing to say we're actually not losing that many.”
   Of course, none of this is news to Perry. The dropout crisis is just an inconvenient truth during campaign season, and denial is the most convenient response.
   But the governor should realize that while playing games with the numbers may help fend off a political opponent during one day of campaigning, it doesn't bring us closer to a solution. And it doesn't give any of us the confidence that he's really out there looking for one.
  

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