The Leaflet: The Failures of the Educational Safety Net

Published December 1, 2017

One of the most important problems facing the education system in many states is that the current education safety net leaves most at-risk youth with a subpar education. Standard safety net elements traditionally include continuation schools, opportunity schools, community day schools, juvenile detention centers, and blended online-learning programs. Students in these alternative education settings are more likely to be minorities and live in low-income households than students in traditional classroom settings.

In a new Heartland Policy Brief titled “Strengthening America’s Educational Safety Net,” Carl Brodt and Alan Bonsteel present some important and grim facts about the current state of the nation’s education system, including that 20 percent of public school students fail to graduate high school on time and 10 percent of high school students enroll in a corrective or supplemental program.

Brodt and Bonsteel, the treasurer and president of California Parents for Educational Choice, respectively, primarily drew their assessment of alternative education and their recommendations from extensive research on the safety nets in California. Two-thirds of California students enrolled in a safety net are in that situation because they have fallen far behind their peers in attaining the required academic credits. The second-most-cited reason for being enrolled in a safety net program (16 percent) is extreme behavioral problems.

Of the students enrolled in these safety net programs, only about 25 percent earn a high school degree. This low graduation rate is especially lamentable given the pitiful academic requirements these students must meet. For example, California requires continuation schools to offer only 15 hours of classes per week, and there are often no school or district academic standards for course credits.

“Emphasis in the safety net tends to be on process—attendance, punctuality, and productivity—and not academic content and achievement,” the authors wrote, arguing that these misplaced priorities are partly to blame for many of the system’s failings.

Brodt and Bonsteel recommend several short-term and long-term actions should be adopted by state legislators across the country to create educational safety nets that are successful:

1.Standardize what constitutes a “safety net” and a “child at-risk,” closely track at-risk children in states’ longitudinal databases, and define knowledge requirements for graduation.

2.Expand independent school options, including by providing greater access to charter schools and taxpayer-funded scholarships for students to use at private schools.

3. Expand parental choice, which includes choice within the safety net, by creating vouchers, education saving accounts, and tax-credit scholarships.

4. Reduce the need for a safety net by motivating students with alternative approaches and experimental programs.

“If we are willing to act boldly to implement the recommendations described above, we can transform and revolutionize how we work with children who are floundering in school,” Brodt and Bonsteel wrote in their conclusion. “Over the next two decades we could empty many of our prisons of young people who have been poorly served by our dysfunctional educational safety net.”


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