America’s Educational Safety Net Is Failing At-Risk Students, Study Finds

Published November 30, 2017

‘The Future Is Grim’

Ten percent of U.S. high school students will enter a “safety net” program to help them navigate their high school education in ways a traditional classroom setting cannot, the study states.

The safety net includes programs in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers; standalone continuation and alternative schools; and programs in traditional schools. Students in these alternative education settings are more likely to be minority and low-income than students in traditional classroom settings.

“For young people who flounder in traditional public schools or who are at-risk of failing, the future is grim,” authors Carl L. Brodt and Alan Bonsteel write in “Strengthening America’s Educational Safety Net,” released in November. “An estimated 10 percent of high school students—some 1.5 million—at some time will enter a supposedly corrective or supplemental program to help them overcome challenges that cannot be met in the regular classroom setting. Local and state governments devote resources to a plethora of these programs. Yet only a small number of the students in these programs earn a degree and acquire the learning expected of mainstream high school graduates.”

Cites Lack of Choice

The failure of each at-risk student is “a tragedy,” the authors write, resulting in “an individual who often will struggle through the rest of life, who will not acquire a comfortable living standard, who will miss many of the joys personal achievement brings, who might end up in a life of crime, and who almost certainly will be a drag on the economy and society.”

At-risk students, the authors explain, need education options that meet their specific challenges.

“To meet these challenges requires choice—the ability of students and their parents or guardians to choose from options that best meet those needs—but choice is precisely what the current system lacks,” the authors write.

Calls for Policy Reforms

The authors call on state legislatures “to take both short-term and long-term actions to correct the problems of the most vulnerable, at-risk students.” These include a uniform definition of what constitutes the safety net and what makes a child at-risk, closer tracking of at-risk children in states’ databases, statistical analyses of at-risk students’ status and progress, opening up these databases to allow research by nongovernmental entities, and an “exit examination” for high school in order to obtain data about the real results of the safety net and establish a floor of knowledge required for graduation.

The authors recommend expanding independent school options and parental choice, “which includes choice within the safety net, vouchers, education saving accounts, and tax-credit scholarships,” saying choice would “decrease the need for a safety net.”

Teresa Mull ([email protected]is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.


Carl L. Brodt and Alan Bonsteel, “Strengthening America’s Educational Safety Net,” The Heartland Institute, November 20, 2017: