California’s student dropout rate has reached the level of a crisis 

The bedrock goal of any public elementary and high school system should be awarding high school diplomas to as many youngsters as possible.

Therefore, one might expect that with the tens of billions of dollars California spends each year to educate six million kids — and with the vital role schools play in the state’s social, political and economic health — we’d know how we’re doing.

However, we don’t know. We use several methodologies to estimate graduation rates and their counterpart, dropout rates. But hard data are lacking, a statewide computerized student-tracking system that’s supposed to provide concrete numbers is incomplete, and Gov. Jerry Brown wants to eliminate its appropriation.

So we are left with inexact methodologies that give us approximate numbers. As fuzzy as they might be, they still indicate that California has a big-time dropout problem.

The latest numbers come from “Diplomas Count,” a nationwide survey of graduation rates from a respected source, the publisher of Education Week magazine.

It found that graduation rates have been improving nationwide in recent years, including those in California. But our gain, up 5.5 percentage points in the 1998-08 decade to 73 percent, was a bit slower than the national change.

Overall, the state’s number is slightly above the national average and just about the middle of the state-by-state rankings, which are topped by New Jersey’s 86.9 percent. But whatever comfort we might take from that is tempered by an immense ethnic gap.

California’s white and Asian graduation rates are as high as New Jersey’s, while those of the state’s black and Hispanic students are below 60 percent.

Hispanics already are more than half the state’s K-12 students and will soon become California’s largest ethnic group and therefore a vital economic component. This means the 40 percent Hispanic dropout rate (again not counting junior high) should be considered a major economic crisis.

But what to do about it? The education establishment said it’s all a matter of money, even though there’s no direct correlation between spending and academic achievement, either in state-to-state or school-to-school comparisons.

The issue is much more complicated, involving cultural pressures, societal expectations, parental involvement, discipline and other intangibles. But the political discourse begins and ends with money as a big part of the annual budget wrangle.

Meanwhile, at least 150,000 youngsters who were enrolled in California’s schools didn’t make it to high school graduation ceremonies this year. And we don’t even know who they are.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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