Gazette opinion: High school diploma provides economic stimulus

2011-05-18T13:38:00Z 2011-06-09T10:18:47Z Gazette opinion: High school diploma provides economic stimulus The Billings Gazette
May 18, 2011 1:38 pm

What’s a high school diploma worth?

For grads and for their state economies, the answers include: increased spending, investment, home sales and vehicle sales. Conversely, dropouts lose money for a lifetime as do their states.

Nationally, graduation rates for minority students hover around 50 percent — 25 percentage points below white students, according to an article about the class of 2010 published in Education Week.

This week, the Alliance for Excellent Education reported on the economic impact of this disparity. The alliance analyzed state-level economic data and dropout numbers to estimate the economic benefits that could accrue if the high minority dropout rates were reduced.

According to estimates from the alliance, if just half of the 24,700 American Indian and Alaska Native students who dropped out of the class of 2010 had graduated, they would be earning about $147 million more each year than they will earn without a high school diploma.

Montana’s largest minority population is American Indian students. As a group, this population has long lagged behind the state average on graduation.

Data from the Montana Office of Public Instruction shows that Montana high schools graduated 10,349 students in the class of 2010, and that 2,252 other students who started ninth grade with class of 2010 failed to graduate.

Statewide, those numbers reflect an overall completion rate of 82.1 percent, said Denise Juneau, Montana superintendent of public instruction. Among American Indian students in the class of 2010, there were 900 graduates and 542 dropouts for a completion rate of only 62.4 percent.

“There’s still a huge disparity,” Juneau said in a phone interview from Helena, noting that the American Indian graduation rate actually declined slightly between the classes of 2009 and 2010.

Montana educators involved in kindergarten through college are working together to improve graduation rates for all Montanans and particularly for American Indian students. They’ve enlisted the help of Montana businesses and asked students themselves how to improve schools.

This month, Juneau presented proposed “common core standards” for English language arts and math to the Montana Board of Public Education. If approved by the board, these standards would replace benchmarks for what students are expected to know by fourth, eighth and 12th grades with specific standards for each grade level K-12.

These proposed standards were developed over the past two years by the Council of Chief State School Officers with voluntary participation by states. The purpose is to provide clear academic standards so that teachers, parents and students will know what the kids need to learn at each grade level. Importantly, these standards align with what students need to know to succeed in postsecondary education.

The Board of Public Education will hold public hearings on the proposed core standards later this summer or fall.

The alliance estimated that Montana’s American Indian students who didn’t graduate with their class in 2010 will cost the state $200,000 a year in tax revenues because of dropouts’ lower earnings. On the other hand, if the dropout rate for this group was reduced by half, those additional graduates would earn about $3 million more annually, compared with their dropout earnings.

About 2,000 students drop out of Montana schools every year, Juneau said. In a state with fewer than 1 million people, a rapidly aging population and declining K-12 enrollment, every one of those 2,000 students is a significant loss. They are Montana’s future work force.

Montana schools will be challenged to improve education over the next two years, although state funding will be less than it is this year, according to the budget bill approved by the Legislature and signed last week by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

As Juneau said: “We can’t stop our continuous improvement.”

Our students’ success will benefit all Montanans.

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