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Kerry Zeroes In on High School Dropout Levels

Times Staff Writers

Sen. John F. Kerry on Tuesday accused President Bush of ignoring a crisis in high school graduation rates and proposed a plan to reduce the number of dropouts by 20% annually.

In a speech at an elementary school here, the Massachusetts senator called the nation’s dropout rate “unacceptable.” He added: “There is no greater priority in this country than reversing this trend.”

Kerry’s speech opened a weeklong focus by him on education. On Thursday in San Bernardino, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee is to unveil plans to increase teacher pay and improve teacher quality.

The two speeches could reflect a subtle but telling shift in emphasis for Kerry on education. During the Democratic primary campaign, he mostly sided with those who contended that Bush had not provided enough money for education and that the administration-sponsored No Child Left Behind Act imposed unrealistic standards on students, teachers and schools.

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With his new proposals to stem the dropout rate and improve teacher quality, Kerry appears to be renewing his commitment to educational accountability -- a theme he stressed earlier in his career and that Bush emphasizes now.

“The corner that the Bush administration wants to put John Kerry in is to make this about money [for schools] versus accountability,” said Andy Rotherham, director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. “And Kerry is very wisely staying out of that corner by saying, ‘Here are the steps we need to make No Child Left Behind work, which requires both accountability and resources.’ ”

Critics charged that Kerry could undermine his pledge to reduce the dropout rate if he abided by earlier promises to loosen the No Child Left Behind law’s requirements that schools annually improve student performance in reading and math.

“Anything you do that relaxes the push to increase the student skill level is going to hinder any attempt to address dropouts,” said Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

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But Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, said Kerry could have a big impact on the dropout problem simply by establishing it as a priority.

“This is an indefensible scandal in the country, and if a president were to point to it, a lot of energy would be generated,” Orfield said. “I really don’t think there is any magic bullet, but if we focus on it, we can make a lot of difference.”

Kerry’s plan to reduce the dropout rate builds on recent research from both liberal and conservative analysts concluding that federal figures significantly understate the number of students who fail to finish high school.

The National Center on Education Statistics reports that 85% of students graduate from high school. Many states report even higher graduation levels. But two recent studies from opposite ends of the political spectrum reported that states and local districts used a variety of misleading techniques to reach those figures.

Both the Manhattan Institute and a joint study by the Civil Rights Project, the Urban Institute and two other liberal groups reported that only about 70% of students actually graduate from high school. The Harvard/Urban Institute study found that only about half of African American and Latino students graduated.

Those percentages translate into about a million students who drop out each year, the Kerry campaign calculated.

Kerry said his new plan would reduce the number of dropouts each year by about 200,000, raising the overall graduation rate to about 80%.

In his speech and in a report released by his campaign, Kerry argued that the Bush administration had failed to enforce provisions in the No Child Left Behind law requiring states to accurately report -- and improve -- their graduation levels.

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In a conference call arranged by the Bush campaign, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, acknowledged that some state methods for measuring graduation rates weren’t “quite adequate.” But he said the administration and congressional Republicans were searching for alternatives to provide a more accurate picture.

Kerry also accused Bush of seeking to cut funding for efforts aimed at increasing graduation rates. These include programs to create smaller high schools, link middle school students in troubled schools with college-age mentors and give districts the flexibility to experiment with dropout reduction plans.

Kerry’s strategy to increase the graduation rate revolves primarily around increasing funding for those programs.

In all, aides say Kerry would earmark about $4.5 billion over 10 years to these initiatives. That’s on top of his earlier pledge to increase overall federal education funding by more than $100 billion over the next decade.

In a proposal reminiscent of many of President Clinton’s efforts to emphasize personal responsibility in social policy, Kerry also said he would support states that deny driver’s licenses to students who quit high school.

Defending Bush’s record, Boehner noted that the administration had substantially increased overall education funding, especially on the Title I program targeted at schools with large numbers of low-income students.

Another senior administration official said Bush had proposed spending more on new remedial reading and math programs for struggling middle and high school students -- many of whom would be at the greatest risk of dropping out.

During Kerry’s visit to the bilingual Longfellow Elementary School in Albuquerque, his mere mention of the No Child Left Behind law drew boos and groans from several dozen teachers, parents and community members assembled in the cafeteria. Kerry echoed some of the criticism of the law’s testing provisions that he highlighted during the Democratic primaries, but also declared his commitment to standards and accountability.

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To a woman who complained about an overemphasis on testing, the candidate said bluntly: “I want testing.”

But he added: “I don’t want one-size-fits-all, factory-school testing in a way that is so rigid that we don’t measure all the other learning and all the other things that a child has done in the course of the year.... That’s really the full measure of education.”

Brownstein reported from Washington, Gold from Albuquerque


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