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State focuses efforts on lowering drop-out rate

By By Sen. Arthur Orr, Guest Columnist
With the beginning of the school year, principals, teachers and superintendents across the state are establishing goals and setting education priorities for their students. The Alabama Legislature, too, set a major education priority in its last session by deciding to tackle our excessive high school dropout rate and the many problems it creates in our state.
Almost 40 percent of today’s high school students fail to graduate on time. Of that percentage, most do not graduate or get a GED at any time in the future. In fact, students are less likely to graduate from high school today than their parents were. In Alabama last year, nearly 25,000 students failed to graduate with their age group. This is unacceptable if we hope to move Alabama forward in this 21st century.
The economic and social costs of this problem are staggering. For last year’s non-graduating group in Alabama, the estimated lost lifetime earnings for that class alone is estimated at over $6.5 billion. Another $245 million will be spent on their health care over their lifetimes compared to an equal sized group of high school graduates, much of this at the expense of Alabama taxpayers. A college graduate will earn on average more than a $1 million more over his lifetime than a high school dropout.
In Alabama, the state would see a combination of crime-related savings and additional revenue of about $125 million each year if the male graduation rate increased by just 5 percent. Indeed, over 80 percent of prisoners in our state are high school dropouts.
While the dollars and cents arguments are compelling, imagine the emotional and personal costs of human beings not reaching their full potential because of a poor decision made as a teenager. In a challenging and competitive economy that relies increasingly on high-tech, highly-skilled labor, we cannot lose generations of Alabama children who choose to leave school without a diploma. Furthermore, given the fact that Alabama has made so much progress in multiple education and economic areas during recent years, we should be troubled that our state’s high school graduation rates continue to rank near the bottom nationally.
Working with my colleagues in the legislature, particularly Rep. Thad McClammy (D-Montgomery), I was proud to have played a part in addressing these concerns by recently sponsoring and passing a bill that raises our minimum dropout age from 16 to 17-years-old. Most 16-year-olds are simply not mature enough to make such an important decision that could very well steer them toward a lifetime of poverty and struggle. The new law went into effect as of this school year.
In addition to raising the dropout age, the bill implements several other programs designed to discourage teenagers from leaving high school without a diploma. Students wishing to drop out must now undergo an exit interview with a parent or guardian and an administrator.
The administrator will provide information on the stark challenges and real life difficulties frequently faced by those without a high school education, and will require both the parent and child to sign a form stating they understand the ramifications of this decision. Those who still decide to leave school will be provided with information on job training and employment opportunities.
In addition, the Alabama Department of Education will monitor dropout rates in individual schools and implement intensive emergency programs in those schools where dropout rates exceed 30 percent.
The legislature also created the Alabama Select Commission on High School Graduation and Student Dropouts, a group charged with formulating strategies, programs and support services designed to lower the high school dropout rate. As chairman of the commission, it is encouraging that candidates for governor in next year’s election, both Republicans and Democrats, recognize the problem and are formulating their own ideas and initiatives for combating it.
Addressing the state’s high school dropout rate will improve Alabama’s economy, decrease crime and dramatically improve the futures of students who are at risk of leaving school prematurely. The steps we have undertaken are not a panacea to the problem, and they are not the ‘quick fix’ for which we are all looking, but they do represent a solid first step toward solving a serious social and economic issue facing our great state.
State Sen. Arthur Orr (R – Decatur) is in his first term in the Legislature, where he represents Morgan, Madison and Limestone Counties. He chairs the Alabama Select Commission on High School Graduation and Student Dropouts.