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Invest in families to keep kids in school

Resource type: News

The Carrboro Citizen |

Original Source

By Chris Fitzsimon

Speaker Joe Hackney presided at a news conference with fellow House Democrats Tuesday to announce that the lawmakers were renewing their commitment made two years ago to improve the state’s high school graduation rate, though Hackney acknowledged that it’s not clear funding will be available for new investments in dropout prevention programs.

The announcement came the same day as more bad news about the state budget emerged, tempering last week’s excitement about North Carolina’s share of the federal stimulus package. Elaine Mejia of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center gave a legislative briefing Tuesday afternoon that an upcoming BTC report will show that next year’s shortfall could exceed $4 billion, close to 20 percent of the state budget.

The finding is based on revenue and spending estimates presented by legislative economists in recent days. It assumes a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for teachers and state employees and a 1 percent increase for retirees.

Without any pay raise, the budget hole is $3.8 billion. North Carolina’s share of the stimulus package will help considerably, but could leave more than half the shortfall for state lawmakers to address. No wonder Hackney was reluctant to promise more dropout-prevention money.

Hackney said House education leaders would travel around the state to listen to suggestions from local communities and to check on some of the 120 community programs funded by grants from the General Assembly.

The grants were declared ineffective by the anti-public school crowd last fall for not improving graduation rates, ignoring the fact that schools didn’t receive the money until halfway through the school year.

Despite some slight improvement recently in the annual dropout rate, roughly three of every 10 North Carolina ninth graders leave high school without a diploma. Roughly half of African-American male ninth graders do not graduate, one of the most shameful statistics in our state.

Nobody disagrees about the devastating effect dropping out has on the students and the state. High school dropouts are three and a half times more likely to be incarcerated than high school graduates. One study found that each dropout costs the state $4,000 a year.

Hackney readily admits that the dropout prevention grants are just part of the solution and that some may work and some may not. He mentioned other efforts the House would support, includingCommunities in Schools that last year provided case managers for more than 21,000 students at risk of dropping out. Ninety-eight percent of them stayed in school. The program is not yet available in every county and this year the group is asking lawmakers to fund graduation coaches in schools with the highest dropout rates.

It’s just one example of what all lawmakers know but some are reluctant to admit, especially this year. Keeping kids in school saves money and lives, but it requires more investments up front, and not just in grants or the extra funding that ought to go to Communities in Schools.

All but one of the states that scored higher on math tests in 2007 have a lower percentage of children living in poverty than North Carolina; all but two of the states that did better on reading do. The same trend exists when considering the percentage of children eligible for free and reduced lunches.

Poverty remains a powerful predictor of student success, whether the measurement is test scores or graduation rates. If lawmakers are serious about preventing dropouts, they must resist calls to balance this year’s budget by slashing human service programs that need more investment, not less.

North Carolina’s early-childhood programs for at-risk kids have received national recognition, but what happens to at-risk kids when they leave early childhood and enter middle school? Their risk often remains.

There are plenty of reasons kids give up and dropout and many must be addressed one on one. Linda Harrill of Communities in Schools has seen kids too embarrassed by their rotting teeth to speak up or even look up in class; she’s also seen a student who didn’t come to school because he didn’t have any shoes.

Those stories cry out for more counselors, more school nurses, more programs like Communities in Schools and, maybe most importantly, more investments in child care, health care, affordable housing and other basic services that help families lift themselves out of poverty and come up with the money to take their child to a dentist.

That’s the underlying message of Hackney’s timely call for a recommitment to raising the graduation rate and invest in our schools, our students and our families.

Chris Fitzsimon is the director of NC Policy Watch.

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