Has the ‘Year of Education’ already started?

Capitol denizens who care about schools eagerly await Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's still-shrouded plans for a forthcoming "year of education." I would argue, however, that the governor got a leg up this month when, in the waning hours of the legislative calendar, he quietly signed a bill that radically changes how we hold our public schools accountable for student success.

The bill is SB 219, which I authored as an opening salvo in a campaign to bring down the high rate of school dropouts–long the silent shame of California's public education system.

Every year, more than 120,000 kids simply disappear from our schools, a number close in size to the entire population of the city of Elk Grove. We have done little to systematically address this problem–in fact, up to now we have allowed our school accountability system to ignore it.

The Academic Performance Index or API–the compass by which public schools steer themselves–does nothing to reward schools for working harder to hang on to students until they graduate. As now constituted, the index may instead encourage schools to let go of kids who struggle academically.

SB 219 injects truth serum into the API by making sure that in addition to test scores the index includes factors for eighth and ninth grade dropouts. The bill focuses on ninth grade because, despite the fact that ninth graders are just 14 or 15 years old, it is the year in which many students abandon their education. The focus on eighth grade encourages middle schools to ensure their graduates make the transition to high school.

The bill also increases accountability for teenagers transferred to alternative education programs, who are in some cases invisible under the current system. It does so by making high schools of origin responsible, for a period of time to be determined by the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education, for the test scores of students who are transferred to alternative schools (continuation schools, community day schools, independent study and the like). That encourages high schools to make transfer decisions based on the likelihood that new student placements will actually increase academic performance and graduation rates.

Increasing graduation rates has to be a long-term agenda for all of us. I do not believe that simply changing the API will be enough. I took a multifaceted approach this year, seeking to identify and intervene with middle schoolers who show early warning signs predictive of future dropouts (SB 344, held in the Assembly); to make sure students get timely information about college eligibility requirements (SB 405, signed by the governor); and to set school attendance and performance standards for teenagers seeking work permits (SB 406, vetoed by the governor). I also supported Senator Jack Scott's SB 890, a two-year bill that promises middle schoolers a place in public college or a career technical program if they complete high school and fulfill all eligibility coursework.

Without question, the next step is to ensure that the statewide education data system, which tracks individual student performance and enrollment but is not yet operational, is robust, accessible, and fully funded. If we believe that every kid should count, then we need to count every kid, and the data system is where we begin to make good on that belief.

This will cost something in a year when we know we face a deficit. But, as the California Dropout Research Project informs us, the costs of inaction are far higher. Based at UC Santa Barbara, CDRP reports that California suffers economic losses of more than $40 billion for each cohort of drop outs over their lifetimes. Those losses mount in the form of lost tax revenue and the costs of welfare, crime and incarceration. They compound year upon year.

Meanwhile, some of the industries upon which we are betting our economic future–computer technology and software engineering, health care, bio and green technology, the building and automotive trades, entertainment–are scrambling to assemble a well-educated workforce, and many have to import talent from elsewhere. We are choking the very engines we hope will enable us to keep calling ourselves the Golden State.

In the "year of education" that awaits us, there will be heated debate over a raft of important issues. But the bipartisan passage of SB 219 signifies our agreement about this much: No child should be invisible in our education system. The high-school diploma is a bare-minimum ticket to productivity that every student needs. And we and our schools must do more to help them earn it.

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