Ed Moore: We need to significantly reduce the number of high-school dropouts

 What if I told you that Florida has a law that that if you use it, you increase your chances of spending time in prison and being dependent on government services for most of your life?

How about if I told you that 10 other states have this same law?

Well, we and they do have this law. It requires compulsory school attendance up to only age 16. Twenty-eight states have compulsory attendance until 18, and 12 have now set the age at 17. In the Southeast, Louisiana is set at 18, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi are at 17 and North Carolina, Georgia and Florida are still at 16.

We are no longer an agrarian society where children had to leave school to help on farms or in shops. We now live in an economy where the skills of today will prove insufficient to meet the needs of tomorrow and a high school diploma is but the first step in a lifetime of learning. Yet, we cling to the old ways, enabling many to choose a lifetime of struggle and dependency.

When President Obama gave his State of the Union Address, I awaited some mention of the role of personal responsibility. I waited for some discussion about the root causes of poverty and dependency. I listened for words that might describe, in part, why there is a growing income gap and why the 82 federal programs that are means-test driven have grown so much.

There was no mention of the rising out-of-wedlock birth rate, single parent households and poor high school graduation rates across the country. How can we expect to address the ills of society when we ignore such facts?

It is estimated that more than 3 million students a year drop out of high school, on average more than 8,300 per day. Seventeen of our 50 largest cities have dropout rates in excess of 50 percent of students. We celebrate graduation rates of 75 percent. Florida just reached that plateau, but only 25 percent of entering ninth-grade students complete high school with an education that enables them to compete in the marketplace.

There are no discussions about the catalysts for poverty and income inequality. The costs of losing one out of four students before high school completion are almost incalculable.

It is not a silver bullet to simply raise graduation rates. Instituting compulsory attendance creates new problems and challenges.

If the programs are not in place in middle schools to help potential dropouts, keeping a student in school until 18 does not guarantee him or her a decent education.

Our school systems and aid programs need to experiment with options. For example, the National Education Association advocates that states require a student to stay in school until age 21 or until the student earns a diploma.

It is clear that 16 is far too young to allow students to quit school, but educators must provide those who are struggling with flexible educational options.

The costs of ignoring this problem go far beyond placing stress on our social welfare systems. The data shows that 75 percent of crimes are committed by dropouts and that 90 percent of jobs exclude persons who don’t have a high school diploma.

Do the math. If we graduate 75 of 100 entering ninth-graders, this leaves 25 people out of 100 who will find it difficult to get a job.

We cannot afford to continue along this path. We must do better!

Ed Moore is President of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, a Tallahassee-based association of 29 private, not for profit colleges and universities.

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