Among the biggest challenges Gov. Perdue faces is improving North Carolina’s education system. Lowering North Carolina’s dropout rate will be one of the new Governor’s top education priorities. Currently, almost 30 percent of students who enter high school fail to graduate four years later. In 2006-07, over 23,500 students dropped out of North Carolina’s public schools.
Earlier this month, the Joint Legislative Commission on Dropout Prevention and High School Graduation issued interim recommendations to help reduce the dropout rate. Several commission recommendations involve the expenditure of additional funds. These include operating funds for 11 new Learn and Earn High Schools, at least 100 more graduation coaches and a new round of funding for dropout prevention grants. Faced with a projected $2 billion deficit, the competition for limited state dollars will be intense. Instead of seeking additional funding for new and unproven programs, lawmakers can take a number of inexpensive steps to help reduce the dropout rate in North Carolina.
Focus Efforts on Ninth Grade
Research shows students in ninth grade are three to five times more likely to drop out. Focusing the major portion of dropout prevention grants on ninth grade would maximize impact.
Provide Principals and Superintendents Additional Flexibility
Schools with high dropout rates are also often low-performing schools. Principals and superintendents need the authority to develop quality teaching staffs and the flexibility to provide appropriate financial incentives.
Change How Dropout Grants are Distributed
Currently $15 million in dropout grants are distributed to school districts on a competitive basis. Over the past year, numerous dropout grants have been awarded to schools whose dropout rates were actually lower than the state average. Why did this happen? This happened because grants frequently went to districts with the best grant writers, and because geographic distribution is a criteria used in awarding grants. In the future, grants should be targeted to areas of highest need. Geography should be dropped as criteria for consideration.
Change How Dropout Prevention Grants Are Evaluated
Under the current legislation (S.L. 2008-107), the committee that distributes dropout prevention grants also evaluates the impact of the grants. Such a system lacks impartiality. A third party evaluation (e.g., Program Evaluation Division of the General Assembly) would warrant a more credible evaluation.
Determine if Current Dropout Prevention Efforts Are Working
North Carolina schools already spend state, federal and local monies on a variety of broadly defined dropout prevention efforts. These programs include funding for such things as at-risk programs, disadvantaged students, literacy coaches and Learn and Earn High Schools. Conservatively speaking, the total dollar amount for such programs surpasses $100 million dollars annually. Despite these investments, over the past five years, the number of dropouts in North Carolina has actually increased from 18,964 to 23,550. As such, an independent review of all dropout-related programs should begin immediately to determine which programs are working and which are not. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund programs that provide no evidence of producing the desired effects.
Provide Incentives to Businesses
Research shows that successful dropout programs involve three components; family members, school representatives and the involvement of the business community. Tax incentives for businesses that employ or mentor workers from dropout transition programs can facilitate this process. Encouraging greater business representation on committees that plan the development of technical education programs or curricula for emerging industries would help to integrate the business community and improve the planning process.