Dropouts costing Texas billions
Resource type: News
Austin American-Statesman |
Communities In Schools is an Atlantic grantee.
By Kate Alexander
No matter how high-school dropouts are counted, Texas has a lot of them, and together they pack quite an economic punch to the gut.
The students in the class of 2012 who will drop out of school are projected to cost the state and its economy $6 billion to $10.7 billion over their lifetimes, a new study from the Texas A&M Bush School of Government and Public Service found.
Dropouts are more likely to be unemployed or earn less than high school graduates, pay less in taxes, get welfare payments or end up in prison.
On the flip side, Texas will save as much as $1.1 billion in the state budget by not having those same students in the classroom. But the researchers said the budget savings are swamped by the long-term economic costs.
“It is essential that policymakers begin making this issue a priority in an attempt to reverse the current trends and their implications on the Texas economy,” the researchers wrote.
State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said lawmakers are well aware of the dropout problem and are always looking for programs that work to reduce the number of dropouts, such as expanding career and technology education to make school more relevant.
“There is no magic bullet,” said Shapiro, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. “If there were, we would have done it a long time ago.”
The wide range of the cost estimate stems from a lingering debate over how to count dropouts. Each method produces divergent results, and interest groups, politicians and education officials tend to pick the measure that makes their point.
To sidestep that debate, the Bush School used the range of measures to project that the dropout rate for the class of 2012 would be 12.2 percent to 22.2 percent — or 40,519 to 73,692 students — and estimated the costs accordingly.
Any way you slice the numbers, they show the problem is somewhere between “really big and terrifyingly big,” said Jason Sabo, senior vice president of the United Ways of Texas, which commissioned the study.
The Bush School study is just one of many that tries to estimate the economic impact of school dropouts in Texas, each with different results.
Lori Taylor, the assistant professor at Texas A&M overseeing the graduate students who produced the study, said the product had to be academically defensible and able to stand up to criticism.
“We didn’t have an answer to find or an ax to grind,” Taylor said.
Sabo said he hoped the credibility of this study would put to rest some of the dispute over the numbers and get people focused on how to keep kids in school.
The Texas Education Agency estimates that the state will spend more than $338 million in the coming fiscal year to help students at risk of dropping out, though much of that money goes to broad school improvement initiatives rather than targeted efforts.
The Bush School study singled out one state-funded program, Communities In Schools, as effectively getting kids to graduate, particularly because the dropout prevention efforts start well before high school.
Communities In Schools gets about $16 million a year from the state in addition to federal money and local contributions.
“This isn’t a cookie-cutter approach. It is very individualized,” said Suki Steinhauser, chief executive officer of the Central Texas affiliate.
Its focus is meeting the specific needs of the students who are struggling to learn, whether those needs are academic, social or economic. Steinhauser said the approach works, and 85 percent of the students they work with show improvement.
“They get a heck of a bang for the buck,” Steinhauser said.