Schools and the Future

Three out of every 10 students who entered ninth grade in California schools in 1979 did not graduate with the class of 1983. That statistic, one among many alarming findings in a legislative report, has no ethnic or geographic boundaries. If the trend continues, this staggering dropout problem could condemn nearly one-third of today's generation of students to a life of constant struggle and tarnish California's future, economic and social.

The report by the California Assembly Office of Research was initiated by Assembly members Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles) and Bill Leonard (R-Redlands). It included these findings:

--California's high school attrition rate has doubled since 1970. It is now higher than the national average.

--Counties with high dropout rates are found in every region of the state. Nor are high dropout rates confined to urban areas. Eighty of the 119 high schools that had dropout rates above 40% were in school districts that had fewer than 40,000 students.

--The problem cuts across racial lines. Half of the American Indian students who should have graduated in 1983 didn't. Four of every 10 black or Latino students dropped out, and three of every 10 white students failed to graduate. Because there are more white students, however, they constituted 56.4% of all dropouts.

--There were 100,000 dropouts from the class of 1983. Of them, 41,000 left school in their last year either because they didn't pass proficiency tests or because they lacked credits to graduate. Another 20,000 female students left because they were pregnant. Others went to work or enrolled in continuation schools.

--The largest increase in dropouts occurred between 1978 and 1979 when summer-school courses were cut drastically after the passage of Proposition 13, according to the report.

Now that California has passed legislation to try to improve academic standards, it can have no more important educational task than to reverse these statistics. Assemblywoman Molina sponsored a bill this past session that would have required school districts to keep better records on dropouts. It would also have required reviews by the state superintendent of public instruction of any schools with dropout rates over 50%. Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed that modest proposal, even after it had been scaled down by eliminating much-needed counseling services in the fourth through ninth grades, the years in which most students start falling behind. Molina plans to introduce the legislation again next year.

Educational achievement is important to all Americans but especially to those seeking to work their way up from impoverished beginnings. Stanford historian Albert M. Camarillo writes in his book "Chicanos in California" that the schools have proved helpful to Latinos but not to the extent that they have served other immigrant groups: "The challenge for California's institutions of learning will be whether they can educate productive citizens or whether they will fail and turn out individuals who are unable to contribute to the welfare of themselves, their ethnic communities or society at large."

It's time to start addressing that challenge--for the good of all the students in California and for the future of their state.

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