Save California’s dropouts by reviving vocational education 

California has the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate, with more than 2 million jobless workers, yet many employers still can’t fill job openings that require technical or mechanical skills.

Let’s connect that anomaly to what’s happening, or not happening, with the 6 million kids in California’s public schools.

On Thursday, state school Superintendent Tom Torlakson released updated high school dropout numbers and supplemented them, for the first time, with some data on the kids who drop out of middle schools.

It’s not a pretty picture. Overall, just three-quarters of those who entered the ninth grade in 2006 graduated four years later. About one-third of those who didn’t make it either completed special education classes, passed a general educational development test or were still in school, but that still left about 18 percent who began adult life without a diploma.

Graduation rates were especially low for Hispanic and black youngsters, just 67.7 percent for the former and 59 percent for the latter, while those of white students (83.4 percent) and Asian-American kids (89.4 percent) were well above average.

The numbers are even worse in urban communities with high Latino concentrations.

Latinos made up more than 70 percent of the 2006 ninth-graders in the immense Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, but four years later, just 62.6 percent of them graduated.

Meanwhile, California’s white population is not only declining, it’s aging. The oldest of the baby boomers reach 65 this year, which means they’ll exit the labor force at an increasingly rapid rate.

Simple arithmetic tells us, therefore, that if economic recovery depends in some measure on having a skilled labor force, the combination of white exodus into retirement and Latino exodus from high school could be a huge economic drag.

Earlier in the week, Torlakson released “A Blueprint for Great Schools,” a summary of the recommendations from a 59-member commission he appointed, that cited the state’s relatively low level of education financing and its equally low standing on national academic tests.

But while the report dwelled at length on school finances, teacher training, encouragement of college attendance and other issues, it mentioned dropouts only in passing. And it said nothing about the erosion of vocational education that might have kept some of those dropouts in school so they could fill jobs still going begging in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

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

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Dan Walters

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