Drop and Kick

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The youth field is certainly well acquainted with the power of hokey statistics. Inflated numbers are the stock in trade for everyone from campaigning politicians who warn about the coming superpredator juvenile crime wave, to those raising funds to save missing children, to the latest substance abuse epidemic uncovered by Joe Califano’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

Deflated statistics have their own practitioners. Among them are officials responsible for counting school dropouts.

Consider the miraculous case of Houston’s Sharpstown High School, with 1,700 youths, 74.7 percent of them considered “students at risk.” It reported nary a dropout in the 2000-01 school year.

Thanks to a whistleblower and media ridicule, a state audit found that Houston’s alleged 1.5 percent dropout rate was off by a Texas mile. Auditors concluded that more than half of Houston’s students failed to graduate, and gave the entire school district an “unacceptable” rating.

That’s a faith-shattering event when you consider that Houston’s superintendent from 1994 to 2001 was Rod Paige. On the strength of his so-called “Texas Miracle,” he was appointed secretary of education by President Bush. Through the Leave No Child Behind Act, Paige is now imposing this voodoo miracle on all of the nation’s public schools.

Houston wasn’t the only school district that seemed to have Enron keeping its books and Arthur Andersen doing its audits.

Dallas, Miami and New York City have also been nailed for cooking the books on dropouts, or “discharges,” as the educrats prefer to call them.

Last year, Houston’s phony statistics even helped it win a $1 million prize from the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation as the best urban school district in the nation.

Better to have given the million dollars to, for example, the National Youth Employment Coalition to assist the thousands of community-based employment and training programs that do so much with so little to serve the nation’s estimated 5 million out-of-school and out-of-work teens and young adults.

A recent report from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, titled “Dropout Rates in the United States: 2000,” claimed that 86.5 percent of students finished high school, up from 85.9 percent the previous year. But a more plausible figure comes from Jay Greene at the conservative Manhattan Institute. Comparing 8th grade enrollments in 1993-94 with high school diploma counts in the spring of 1998, he found that only 74 percent of students graduated. Among African-Americans, the rate was 56 percent; among Latinos, 54 percent.

The Bush administration’s upbeat reports on education are part of the rationale being used in Congress, and in agencies such as the departments of Labor (DOL) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to cut programs that aid disconnected youth.

At DOL, the $44.5 million Youth Opportunity Grant Program (down from $225 million last year) and the $54 million Responsible Reintegration of Youthful Offenders Program are on the ropes. HUD seems indifferent to the need to increase funding for YouthBuild, which trains 16- to 24-year-old dropouts in marketable skills. (The Senate is slated to cut $5 million from YouthBuild’s current $65 million.) AmeriCorps, which also serves many of these youth, has already taken cruel cuts that have killed programs.

In November, the Bush administration will convene a National Youth Summit. You can count on the dropout shell game and declining support for second-chance youth programs won’t be on the agenda.

The Public Will and Children

Whole bookshelves could be filled with academic, think tank and trade association tomes on why American voters won’t tax themselves to adequately support our nation’s 73 million children. Given the response to date by voters, the return on investment in these studies has been paltry indeed.

Last January, Oregon voters rejected Measure 28, which would have allowed modest tax increases, opting instead for drastic cuts in an array of state-funded services. Some public schools trimmed the school year by up to five weeks. Youth services in the state have been deeply slashed. More than 100 state troopers faced the ax.

In September, 1.3 million Alabama voters slaughtered (by 68 percent to 32 percent) a $1.2 billion tax increase that would have primarily benefited the state’s poorest families while raising taxes on wealthy citizens and large corporations, who are taxed at one of the lowest rates in the nation. Low- and moderate-income voters rejected the measure, backed by Gov. Bob Riley (R), by 30 percentage points; wealthier voters opposed it by only a 14-point margin.

So to help close the state’s $700 million deficit next year, some 4,000 teachers and 2,000 support staff will lose their jobs – no small matter in a state that’s ranked 44th in per pupil spending. Youth services in Alabama – never anything to brag about to begin with, unlike those in Oregon – face cuts in excess of 20 percent.

Even voters in prosperous, well-educated Seattle, at the opposite end of the ideological map from Alabama, wouldn’t swallow a 10-cent tax on a gourmet cup of coffee to support preschoolers.

Just what is going on here?

Reflexive tax resisters, led by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, will never find taxes low enough. So in a political sense, that leaves about one-third of all voters beyond persuasion in the debate to determine the optimum level of public support for children’s health, education and social services.

Some observers would simply reduce the national quandary to an intellectually lazy conservative vs. liberal analysis. Yet the national Christian Coalition supported the Alabama tax increase, while the state chapter opposed it. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio (which includes Cleveland), a tax increase was opposed by the liberal (and deeply cynical) Service Employees International Union. But in May, voters there approved Issue 15, which hikes taxes to fund health and other social programs.

Every day Youth Today is on the receiving end of a blizzard of reports, journals and newsletters of all shapes and sizes. Some are excellent additions to understanding children and youth issues. Others contain wise and pragmatic strategies for helping kids. But with public spending on children in decline, they all have an unavoidable rob-Peter-to pay-Paul feel. If war is too important to be left to the generals, then perhaps building a solid public will for children is too important to be left to Ph.D.s. Neither Bill Moyers’ specials on PBS nor shallow national campaigns like the Democratic-allied Stand for Children or the Republican-allied America’s Promise will win the issue.

Just what will move Americans to come to the aid of their country’s children remains an urgent mystery yet to be solved.