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Report says Florida is in high-school graduation crisis

It's now a household phrase applied to banks and auto makers in a bailout era: too big to fail.

Now a report by an education think tank at Johns Hopkins University says a crisis of low high school graduation rates in Florida and a handful of other states is dire enough to warrant the same kind of aggressiveness by the federal government.

The crippling effect of the recession on state economies — and, in turn, education funding — makes the need for an assertive approach using federal stimulus money all the more pressing, according to the report, "Graduating America: Meeting the Challenge of Low Graduation Rate High Schools."

Five states — Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and South Carolina — are deemed by the researchers to be in what they call the statewide crisis category. In these states, the study says, high concentrations of schools with low rates are widespread.

Florida is also among the nation's largest states, so graduation rates here have a profound effect on the education level of the country's workforce, said Adria Steinberg, a co-author.

"You cannot solve the national problem if graduation does not become the norm in this group of states," Steinberg said. "There are states that, like (insurance company) AIG, are too big to fail."

"The go-it-alone approach has not worked," said Bob Balfanz, another co-author.

The study put Florida's graduation rate in 2006 at 63.6 percent, with 41 percent of high schools deemed as low graduation schools. Researchers used U.S. Department of Education statistics from 2006 — the most recent available — to track ninth graders and whether they graduate after three years.

State officials, however, put the graduation rate at 71 percent in 2006 and 75.4 percent in 2008.

Balfanz was among researchers who in 2007 raised the ire of educators here by using the methodology to label many Florida high schools "dropout factories." Critics said the study failed to account for students who move between schools or enter adult education courses.

Florida will receive about $3 billion over the next three years in federal stimulus money for public school education.

In addition, the Obama administration had dedicated $5 billion nationwide to turn around floundering schools.

Most is devoted to a "Race to the Top" fund. States will compete for a share of $4.3 billion by offering improvement strategies.

Florida eagerly awaits the chance to apply, said Tom Butler, spokesman for the state Department of Education. In the meantime, officials have faith that a new program to divert more money to the poorest performing schools will improve graduation rates.

By the state's reckoning, districts in the Tampa Bay area are improving their rates.

Pinellas County's climbed 7.1 percentage points to 74.4 percent last year — the highest in at least a decade. Hillsborough's rate moved from 79.1 to 80 percent. Pasco's climbed from 73.7 to 79.5 percent. Hernando's went from 75.1 to 76.9 percent.

The report contends that the Obama Administration has made a good start but suggests other ways to raise graduation rates. They include changing federal law to allow a bigger chunk of funding for poor schools to be directed to high schools; partnerships to call attention to the problem and "graduation bonds" that allow states to borrow money and pay it back as reforms take effect.

The stakes will be higher in Florida next year when graduation rates are included in figuring school grades, said Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County schools.

"We're going to have to focus on increasing graduation rates and more funding would absolutely be helpful in improving those rates," Cobbe said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Report says Florida is in high-school graduation crisis 07/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 5:06pm]
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