Educators and parents all around California often focus on the budget crisis faced by the state's public schools. They dispute whether it's better to teach immigrant children only in English or take a bilingual approach. They're concerned about weapons and violence in schools; they fret over teacher shortages and inadequate teacher training. Beepers, cell phones and curriculum itself are subjects of controversy. All are legitimate worries, even during this summer vacation.
But the focus on those sexy issues has left the real crisis in California schools almost unexamined. That crisis: dropouts. It's become so bad that it almost guarantees a major segment of California's populace will remain illiterate and technologically incompetent for decades to come.
For if kids are not in school, it's hard to educate them, no matter how much you reduce class sizes, no matter how many achievement tests you give. Dropouts don't achieve and they don't benefit from smaller classes. They do commit more than their share of crimes and they have little hope of much future economic success.
For many years, state statisticians deliberately obfuscated dropout figures, but in 1998 a group of voucher advocates called Parents for Educational Choice forced officials to reveal the statewide truth. Since 1999, the overall dropout rate has held steady at about one-third.
Consider that. It means that for every 1,000 students entering high school each fall, about 330 won't finish. The rates are actually much higher at some schools, significantly lower at others.
But it's hard for parents and voters to know how their own local schools are doing. For no one forces honesty on local schools. And so, while the state reports overall attrition rates, districts and counties report what's called a "derived" rate. Students who don't show up for 45 straight days are usually considered dropouts.
But many districts reduce their dropout rate by simply taking the word of students who say they are transferring to other schools and not checking whether they actually enroll elsewhere. These districts also don't count kids who skip out during summer vacation, assuming they too have gone to another school when many have actually quit.
In short, when the state says schools overall graduate 68.7 percent of students who enroll as freshmen, but most local schools say their dropout rate is only 10 or 12 percent, the state figure probably reflects more closely what is actually going on in most locales.
One result is that virtually all school districts can brag that their dropout rates are far below average. This works to the political advantage of local politicians and chambers of commerce, but it doesn't help the problem at all.
What can help are concerted programs aiming to keep kids in school. One district that's been somewhat successful is Grossmont Unified in San Diego County, where the reported dropout rate fell from 7.2 percent to 6.4 percent in 2001, the latest year any district has reported.
Grossmont offers schools monetary rewards for improving attendance. It tracks truants and knocks on doors of students who miss much school. The district has also tried to make classes "relevant," with courses on travel, tourism and personal finance. Other districts work with local prosecutors to enforce truancy laws and have set up programs allowing high school students to attend class only in the afternoon or evening.
But these are drops in the bucket. The long-term effects of today's shamefully high dropout rates will be felt for decades to come. That's a certainty when 80 percent of all state prison inmates failed to graduate high school.
Says Alan Bonsteel, president of Parents for Educational Choice, "Things like an electricity shortage will fade in time, but dropouts are forever." One obvious long-term effect, besides criminality: California companies will constantly seek employees from aboard because high dropout rates assure that schools can't turn out enough quality homegrown workers.
Meanwhile, as long as local school districts can continue reporting imprecise, lowball figures that serve the interests of boosterism and public relations, and not those of the students themselves, there will be little pressure for them to improve their record and their programs.
This is not a matter of money; it's a matter of effort, caring and honesty. There's no reason the California dropout rate has to be so absurdly high. But it won't improve until most districts level with their citizens and work at appealing to the one-third of all kids who now leave school the moment they can.
Elias is author of "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It." His e-mail address is email@example.com.