Article Comment 

Slimantics: When kids drop out

 

Slim Smith

 

For some time now, we've been hearing that you can't fix what's wrong with our education system by throwing money at it. 

 

Well, you can't fix what's wrong with education by not throwing money at it, either. 

 

It is a point that Mississippi has proved over and over, especially during the past few years of economic decline. 

 

From Pre-K, which doesn't even exist in Mississippi, to grade school to high school to higher education, Mississippi's legislatures have begged poverty and austerity to justify steadily decreasing funding for education. 

 

And Mississippi continues to slip farther and farther into hopelessness. 

 

I was reminded of this Tuesday when I attended the Columbus Rotary Club and listened to the guest speaker, Dr. Martha Liddell, talk about a new program designed to address the dropout problem in the Columbus school system. As the superintendent of Columbus Schools, Liddell laid out the plans for the program, called "Project 2020.''  

 

Funded by grants, the program hopes to recapture dropouts by providing online high school courses that can be taken at designated churches or community centers around town. 

 

The degree to which the program succeeds is, of course, a matter of speculation at this embryonic stage.  

 

What is known is that the dropout problem has reached epidemic proportions, not only in Columbus but throughout Mississippi. Some of the stark numbers: Almost one in four (24.3 percent) Mississippi kids won't earn a high school diploma. In Columbus, roughly 3 in 10 (30.3 percent) won't graduate. 

 

Here are some other numbers to consider: Three out of four prison inmates are high school dropouts.  

 

Just this week, as legislators began their annual bickering, preening and grand-standing over the state budget, a few more numbers emerged: Mississippi incarcerates its citizens at a rate that is a whopping 36 percent higher than the national average. 

 

You can't fix a problem by throwing money at it?  

 

When it comes to prisons, Mississippi will throw plenty of money at it, and apparently do so without the faintest cry of dissent. Mississippi Department of Corrections is asking for $30 million to cover its projected 2012 budget shortfall. The MDOC's budget request for 2013 is a shade over $339 million. It costs the state $98 per day to keep a prisoner clothed and fed; the state spends $15 per day on each student. 

 

Our state legislators will spare no expense when it comes to locking folks up. When it comes to education, however, they say we must be "responsible.''  

 

The fact that Mississippi is among the nation's "leaders" in both dropouts and incarceration is not something that can be considered merely coincidental. It strongly suggests that the fewer the dropouts, the fewer the inmates. 

 

It would be wonderful if Project 2020, with its goal to reduce the dropout rate in Columbus to 20 percent by the year 2020, achieves its goal. But when you consider the stark reality of what faces our state, it's naive to think that one more program is going to be the solution.  

 

Let's also get real about charter schools, which has become the magic bullet for the state's educational woes among many conservative legislators. 

 

In 2009, the most authoritative study of charter schools was conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. The report found that 17% of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools; 46% showed no difference from public schools; and 37% were significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts. 

 

Programs are fine. Options are fine. They can be parts of the solution. But they are not the solution. 

 

Until Mississippians value education, really value it, there is unlikely to be anything that changes the debilitating course Mississippi has followed since, well, forever. 

 

As I listened to Liddell passionately discuss the efforts combat the dropout problem, it occurred to me that the real problem goes much deeper than what administrators and teachers may or may not do. 

 

It suddenly occurred to me: Excuse me, but since when did the kids get to make the decision to drop out of school? 

 

In my generation, it was simply not an option. We had two choices: Go to school and like it or go to school and not like it. Either way, we went to school. All of us -- black or white, poor or affluent. There was little demographic disparity when it came to that matter. 

 

Ultimately, it will be the parents who play a decisive role in the whole dropout issue. 

 

It is far past time that parents asserted their authority. Until that point has been established, all the programs in the world can only mitigate the problem.

 

Slim Smith is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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