Thursday, January 27, 2011




While almost all California’s political attention this winter is focused on the state’s seemingly never-ending budget crisis and the severe cuts it will cause in most government programs, few have been heeding an ongoing catastrophe with even greater long-term implications – the school dropout problem.

For years, it’s been accurate to counsel high school students that about one-third of the faces they see on the first day of their freshman year will be nowhere in sight on Graduation Day four years later.

It’s a dropout crisis of huge proportions, partially fed by illegal immigration, particularly from Mexico, which sees hundreds of thousands of pupils dumped into California public schools each year after getting little or no preparation in their home country.

No less an authority than Jorge Casteneda, a former foreign minister of Mexico, co-authored a recent essay saying “Mexican education is bad in every sense,” and adding that the academic performance of Mexican youngsters arriving in America “is inferior not just to their Anglo or Asian-American peers, but also to their Salvadoran, Guatamalan and Filipino peers.”

It’s part of what new state Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson calls a state of emergency in California schools. “There’s simply no other way to describe it, this is an emergency.”

Some aspects of the emergency Torlakson notes: 58 percent of school districts have cut instructional materials like textbooks. 35 percent have increased class sizes in the last year. 35 percent have reduced teaching staffs. 48 percent have cut nurses, counselors and psychologists. 50 percent have cut employee pay.

Torlakson’s listing decries the $18 billion in budget cuts imposed on public schools over the last three years of ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure, which ended in early January. But he says nothing much about dropouts, which ex-state Supt. Jack O’Connell in December put at about 22 percent of those who enter high schools. This figure was an official improvement from last year, which O’Connell attributed to a new data system allowing the state to track students better when they move from district to district. Students no longer simply disappear when their parents relocate, as the average California family does once every seven years.

But the 22 percent figure, based only on high school enrollments, leaves out another key phenomenon that probably brings the overall dropout numbers closer to 35 percent than the lower figure school officials now purvey: middle school dropouts.

Alan Bonsteel, a physician and school choice advocate who was first to point out the severity of the high school dropout problem early in the last decade, now estimates at least 15 percent of all students leave school before ever reaching 9th grade.

“This means,” he recently wrote, “that in a typical school district with even the state-reported 22 percent dropout rate for high school students, the real dropout rate, including students who flee sixth, seventh and eighth grades, is 34.5 percent.”

It means that despite the state’s new tracking system, the actual dropout rate is just about what it was 10 years ago, when educators first became aware of its scope.

Part of the problem, of course, is that many immigrant children arrive with skills behind their peers, become frustrated and leave, some joining gangs. But most of this problem is probably not related to immigration. For example, even the most recent state-reported figures show 37 percent of all African Americans who started high school in 2006 had dropped out by last June.

Bonsteel maintains absolute school choice is the answer to this problem. But the rise of charter schools and the proliferation of private schools over the past few years has created more school choice than California ever knew. Yet, dropout figures did not change much.

No one has yet offered a definitive solution to this scene, which amounts to a full-fledged catastrophe. Tracking students as they move from district to district has cut the numbers a bit, but cannot mask the severity of the problem.

The answer must come from within each district, as schools will have to offer both remedial classes for immigrant children needing to catch up and more stimulating curriculum to keep kids from leaving out of boredom or frustration.

One positive sign: No new budget plan now under consideration proposes more cuts to elementary, middle and high schools.

So there’s hope dropouts have at least stabilized. But just maintaining today’s sad situation isn’t good enough. This problem will only be solved by innovative thinking, new offerings, involved parents and quality teaching that combine to keep children interested and wanting to get the education they now need more than ever.

Failure will mean establishment of a permanent underclass of uneducated citizens unqualified for the ever more sophisticated job market.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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