Each year, high school dropouts cost the state of North Carolina more than $873 million in prison costs, health care expenses and lost tax revenue, nonprofit organization Parents for Education in North Carolina said in a study released last Thursday.
The study, "The High Costs of Low Graduation Rates in North Carolina," coincides with renewed efforts to reform struggling public schools in Durham and around the state. It aims to demonstrate that the cost of dropping out extends beyond the individual, said Brian Gottlob, author of the study and a senior fellow at the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation.
"Dropouts have a social cost," he said. "It's not just about whether your own kids graduate. We all pay a price for the kids who leave."
Gottlob's study estimates that dropouts' low earnings and high unemployment siphon more than $700 million out of North Carolina's tax revenue each year. Dropouts are more than twice as likely as graduates to be incarcerated and more than a third rely on Medicaid, the federal government's health care program for low-income individuals.
In Durham, fighting dropouts has inspired an alliance between county social services and public school administrators.
"Our drop-out rate is a call to action," said Ellen Reckhow, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners. "We need to reach out and embrace the children in our community who need our help."
The commissioners and the Durham Board of Education are working to provide support to students that extends beyond the classroom, she said.
"Many of our students come to us with needs outside of the academic realm," said Board of Education member Heidi Carter, Trinity '83. "There's a lot of poverty in Durham and that brings with it many challenges."
Forty-six percent of students in the Durham Public Schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the primary statistical tool districts use to estimate low income. Two-thirds of Durham students graduate in four years, putting the district on par with the state average.
The county's official dropout reduction plan focuses on expanding access to mentoring services, providing alternative schools that offer flexible hours and job training and increasing focus on early childhood education. The board's goal is to achieve a 100-percent graduation rate by 2013.
Educators said the key to keeping North Carolina students in school is making education relevant and exciting.
"Kids become disaffected when they're not exposed to interesting material and don't perceive staying in school as essential to improving their life condition," said William Darity, professor of public policy studies, African and African-American studies and economics.
PENC's study advocates vouchers-providing public funds for parents to send their children to private schools-as the most viable solution to the problem. The report states districts with a larger proportion of students in private schools have higher graduation rates.
Giving parents more choice drives up competition among public and private schools, improving the quality of education for all students, the study argues.
But opponents said they fear that if highly motivated students begin to flee the public schools using vouchers, there will be less funding and fewer opportunities for those who remain.
"[Vouchers are] a Republican, right-wing attempt to erode the public schools," said Joseph Di Bona, associate professor of education. "They don't address the fundamental problem that kids have in high school-how to learn something useful."
Regardless of what direction the state takes, students should have choices to keep education relevant for them, said Sandra Burns, a counselor at Durham's Hillside High School.
"It's up to kids to decide whether they're interested [in remaining in school], but having options is a major help," she said.
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