Choice, Not More Obama-Style Statism, Can Reduce Dropout Rate

Published February 16, 2012

President Barack Obama weighed in against school dropouts in his State of the Union Address only to advocate a remedy–government compulsion–that has failed to ease the problem.

There is a proven alternative: freedom for parents to choose schools they and their children actually want, as opposed to the ones government bureaucracies assign them. The president said nothing about the role of individual choice in reducing dropouts.

Instead, he called on all states to compel all students to “stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.” He did not attach an “or else” to his grim exhortation, but given his administration’s use of No Child Left Behind waivers and Race to the Top bribes to muscle states into accepting the Common Core national curriculum, it seems likely federal compulsion will follow if Obama wins a second term.

The thing is, all U.S. states and territories already have laws on the books requiring children to enroll in public, private, or home schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Perhaps Obama envisions all children being herded into government-run institutions. He didn’t say.)

Thirty-two states decree a child’s education must begin at age six, while others set it as early as five or as late as eight. All states continue compulsory education into the high school years, with 26 making 16 the cut-off age and others opting for 17 or 18 (as Obama now deems necessary for all).

And what has compulsory attendance achieved? The U.S. graduation rate hasn’t broken 70 percent in decades, and for black and Hispanic kids the rate hovers between 50 and 55 percent. Millions of inner-city children are trapped in dysfunctional schools known as dropout factories.

Enlisting armies of truancy gendarmes to keep sullen youth in classrooms to age 18 would ensure a spike in violence and constant disruptions that would further poison the atmosphere for willing learners. That might lead to still more federal money for government dropout prevention programs that please liberals but plainly don’t work.

What does help improve graduation rates is the addition of private choice for families that have been limited to government schooling. A recent study by University of Kentucky researchers found students in Milwaukee’s pioneering school-voucher program were significantly more likely to graduate high school and go on to a four-year college than their peers in the city’s public schools.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama told the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he would be open to vouchers, given evidence they work. He conveniently forgot that pledge in crafting the State of the Union.

With regard to the congressionally approved private-choice vouchers for needy kids in the District of Columbia, Obama sided with liberal Senate Democrats in attempting to terminate the program, an effort that was finally thwarted by the election in November 2010 of a Congress friendlier to school choice.

Obama stuck to his intent to end the program despite a study commissioned for his own U.S. Department of Education showing receipt of a voucher raised D.C. students’ probability of completing high school by 12 percentage points.

Freedom of choice: It’s what works in education, Mr. President.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute in Chicago.