L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten
July 19, 2008 - We've all become so inured to the unending stream of dreary and dispiriting news produced by the Los Angeles Unified School District that Thursday's horrific report on the high-school dropout rate came and went with barely a civic whimper.
The statewide numbers were stunning; the figures for Los Angeles were tragic. According to the California Department of Education, one in every four of the state's students fails to finish high school. In the LAUSD -- which is supposed to educate 10% of all California's school-age children -- a third of all students drop out.
Those figures are even more distressing when you break them down racially and ethnically: More than 40% of the LAUSD's black students will not complete high school, and 35.4% of the Latinos will drop out. (Currently, 73% of LAUSD's nearly 700,000 students are Latino; 11% are African American; 9% are white; and 4% are Asian.)
But there's failure enough for everyone. According to the new numbers, whites and Asians also drop out at double-digit rates -- 20.1% and 13.4%, respectively.
Now, it's probably true that the LAUSD deserves to be ranked among the American republic's most incompetent public agencies. The people who run it might as well have learned their managerial skills at the Myanmar generals' military staff college. It's hard to know which of the multiple examples of their failure deserves to be designated "Exhibit A" in the case for their fecklessness, but somehow the fact that these are state numbers stands out. That's because the LAUSD has never been able to develop a reliable way of its own to keep track of how many students actually graduate.
You would think that a group of people charged with managing a budget of nearly $20 billion for the nation's second-largest school district might have a kind of rudimentary interest in whether they're succeeding or failing -- or, perhaps, a simple intellectual curiosity about what was occurring in the world around them. Not this bunch. The philosophical category "invincibly ignorant" might as well have been created to describe them.
The only reason these dropout numbers exist at all is that embarrassing studies by civil rights groups and pressure from pro-school-voucher organizations shamed the state into passing a law that assigns each student a number when he or she enters school, allowing the Department of Education to track pupils' progress.
Those same groups, however, still suspect that California and, particularly, the LAUSD may be understating the problem drastically, in part because the new system relies on self-reporting by school officials. (Imagine asking that of the LAUSD, which can't even calculate its employees' paychecks with any reliability.)
In an economy that increasingly rewards participation in knowledge-based industries, failure to graduate from high school is a virtual guarantor of perpetual helotry. But that's exactly the role the LAUSD is content to assign tens of thousands of black and Latino young people, year after year.
Every June, according to a study conducted last year, California's failing schools add another 120,000 dropouts to a statewide workforce whose unemployment rate is now just under 7%. Over their working lives, each dropout will earn about $290,000 less than their classmates who graduated and, therefore, will pay $100,000 less in federal, state and local taxes.
Nor is that the end of the social cost of our schools' dereliction: A high school graduate is 20% less likely to commit a violent crime than a dropout, 11% less likely to commit a crime against property and 12% less likely to be arrested for breaking the drug laws.
One of the few who did react to Thursday's numbers was Betty T. Yee -- former chief deputy director for budget of the California Department of Finance -- who pointed out that, over their lifetimes, each succeeding "class" of 120,000 dropouts will cost the state $46 billion because "they are more likely to be unemployed and pay no taxes, resort to criminal activity and rely on publicly funded programs for basic subsistence and healthcare. ... A high school graduate is 68% less likely to be on any public assistance program than a high school dropout." (By the way, $46 billion is 2.9% of California's annual gross state product.)
If that's not enough to get somebody's attention, consider the current dropout rates at these Los Angeles high schools: Jefferson (58%), Belmont (56%), Locke (50.9%), Crenshaw (50%), Roosevelt (49.6%), Fremont (46%) and Jordan (43.7%).
Does anybody really think it's an accident that these schools draw their students from the neighborhoods in which the city's gang problem is most serious and most intractable?
There are a lot of failing marks to be passed out here, and they shouldn't go only to our children.
david wyles, chair of the lausd cac responds;
Dear Mr. Rutten,
Your column was spot-on. But it's not only LAUSD that's at fault. It's the community, the families (even if single-parented), and the kids themselves. It's a tragic circle, one that can only be broken by deep civic support to alleviate poverty and by the individual efforts of dedicated parents and children.
LAUSD has many faults, but it alone should not be singled out for the too many drop-outs. Many of these kids have no role models, many of their parents are absent or unemployed, many of them are subject to awful peer pressure (gangs, drugs, etc.).
The school system should definitely keep better track of kids who drop out (for instance, some 60 per cent of future drop-outs can be reliably targeted by their attendance in third grade!). But ultimately, it is the community, the family, and the child himself who determines the drop-out rate.
We can't blame all of our social ills on LAUSD.
P.S. I'm presently Chairman of the Community Advisory Committee of LAUSD, which represents the interests of the parents of the more than 82,000 children with special needs in the School District.
Kids with learning disabilities are more likely to drop out and go to juvenile hall or prison than the general population, so they definitely need more attention from everybody -- and that includes LAUSD, the Mayor, and the Los Angeles Times.