California Dropout Numbers Exposed as Phony

Published September 1, 1999

In a great victory for the state’s school choice advocates, California’s reported dropout numbers have been exposed as phony.

Although the California Department of Education had claimed in June 1998 a 3.3 percent dropout rate, the Department this year–under pressure from the State Board of Education–reported a dropout figure ten times higher. Based on ninth-grade enrollment and twelfth-grade graduation numbers, fully one-third (34 percent) of California’s students are missing on graduation day.

Like most states, California calculates its dropouts by using a “derived” rate, which means that schools attempt to count student dropouts individually. With each school having an obvious incentive to understate its dropout rate, administrators rarely include students who dropped out over summer vacation or students who were sent to county continuation schools, where 85 percent subsequently dropped out. Those errors were compounded when the California Department of Education began emphasizing the state’s one-year dropout rate–without informing the public that this figure had to be multiplied by four to obtain the four-year dropout rate.

School choice advocates, including California Parents for Educational Choice, took the issue to the State Board of Education, which had been appointed by former Governor Pete Wilson, a friend of school choice. The Board required that the California Department of Education’s June 1999 dropout report list four-year dropout rates, and also mandated that the state’s “official” high school graduation rate would be the U.S. Census Bureau figure of 78.8 percent.

The Department’s announcement on June 7 that one-third of California’s high school students never made it to graduation created banner headlines in all but one of California’s major daily newspapers the following day. On June 9, the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Diego Union Tribune all ran lead editorials berating the California Department of Education for having deceived the public for so long. The following day, Los Angeles Times cartoonist Michael Ramirez, who had hitherto been cool to school choice, skewered voucher critics by showing a razed public school with the comment, “But vouchers could destroy our public school system.”

California school choice advocates are now taking the next step: Educating the public about how freedom of choice in education will decrease dropout rates.

Alan Bonsteel MD is president of California Parents for Educational Choice and coauthor of A Choice For Our Children: Curing the Crisis in America’s Schools, published by Oakland’s Institute for Contemporary Studies.