From Real Clear Education
By Carl Brodt and Alan Bonsteel
December 22, 2017
In the United States, roughly 20 percent of all public school students fail to graduate high school on time, while 10 percent—about 1.5 million kids—end up entering an educational “safety net” to help them stay in the classroom.
These at-risk students are disproportionately black or Hispanic, come from low-income families, require some form of special education services or have drug or alcohol issues. Of these safety net students, only a relatively small number will go on to earn their diploma, despite a plethora of local and state resources dedicated to these programs.
The cornerstone of the safety net is continuation schools, which exist for students who are not on track to graduate because they have too few course credits. The rest of the safety net includes other types of alternative schools. These schools typically provide support for students who are pregnant or parenting, expelled, habitually truant, have a poor attendance record or are insubordinate or disorderly while in attendance.
Youth educational programs at jails and juvenile detention centers, as well as some independent study programs, are also considered to be in this part of the safety net.
Traditional government schools have many serious problems, but at least some oases exist in the current system in which many students can excel. The safety net, however, is failing most of the students it’s supposed to be assisting.
To the vast majority of people, the nature of this problem is largely invisible. While the public sees raw numbers reflecting how many students graduate, few people appreciate the waste of human potential and public funds that these failure rates represent.
Each and every failure is a tragedy, and typically involves an individual who will struggle through the rest of his or her life without acquiring a comfortable living standard. These kids will also likely miss many of the joys personal achievement brings. It’s common for at-risk students to end up settling for a life of crime, and most end up becoming a burden on the economy and society.
America’s educational safety net is in dire need of a fix, and we provide what we believe will be helpful solutions in our new paper for The Heartland Institute, titled “Strengthening America’s Educational Safety Net.” The first step policymakers and advocates must take is to define, in the most uniform way possible, what constitutes an “at-risk” child and the meaning of “safety net.”
We would also like to see closer tracking of these children in longitudinal databases, which should show student progress toward high school graduation, record signs that students might be at risk of not attaining that goal, note any support they are receiving in the safety net and report on student success resulting from that support.
We believe an expansion of school choice options—such as voucher programs, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts—would substantially increase at-risk students’ chances of enrolling in college. School choice would also provide students with greater opportunities to escape their old schools and peer groups, and thus their old problems, and find a school that could captivate their interests and encourage them to buy into the educational process.
Finally, we recommend minimizing the number of children who fall into the safety net in the first place by moving away from a one-size-fits-all model of mass education from 19th century Prussia. This model is predominant in the modern U.S. K–12 system but has proven to be ineffective. We argue educators should instead adopt more interactive and experimental approaches.
If we are willing to act boldly on these recommendations, America can transform and revolutionize how educators work with children who are floundering in traditional schools. If proper reforms are made to the nation’s educational safety net, we believe that during the next two decades America could empty many of its prisons and set countless more children on the path toward achieving productive and rewarding lives.
Carl Brodt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a certified management accountant, a managing director at Prescio Consulting, an adjunct professor at Holy Names University in Oakland, California, and treasurer of California Parents for Educational Choice. Alan Bonsteel, M.D. is a family physician and president of California Parents for Educational Choice.