Charlotte Hays

When the National Education Association—the nation’s largest teachers’ union—addresses the problem of high school dropout rates, you can bet your bottom dollar that their proposals will be more beneficial to the powerful union than to the dropouts.

Since a recent Gates Foundation study found that a third of all public high school students leave school before graduation and more than 80 percent of the nation’s 3.5 million dropouts ages 16 to 25 regretted their decision, it is obvious that the failure to get a basic education affects many people and hinders them from making the most of their chances.

The NEA’s solution?

Well, it’s not school vouchers or firing lousy teachers to improve the quality of instruction in public schools. That might help the students. The NEA has a different clientele and a different “solution:” pass a law requiring “kids” to stay in school until they are either able to pass enough courses to graduate or turn 21. This is part of a ten-year plan with a $1 billion a year price tag that the NEA recently put forward.

Why not 65? I mean, if you sit there long enough and flunk enough courses, and this could go on until senior high school becomes senior high school. Thorstein Veblen’s leisure class will have been expanded to include these elderly high school students who most likely continue to get nothing from school, but aren’t asked to become adults either.

Not surprisingly, given that the NEA is a key part of the Democratic Party base, President Obama endorsed a similar idea for turning us into a nation of illiterate Peter Pans in his State of the Union address, in which he advocated that all states make the legal age for leaving school to 18. Some states allow people legally to leave school at 16, which actually strikes me as the better option.

Is it wise for sixteen-year-olds to drop out of high school? The answer is almost always no. But requiring them to remain in school five more years is unlikely to produce good results either, since that just means more time in the same education system that already has failed them. Keeping “kids” in school until they are legally adults may save or create jobs in the field of public education. But that is all it is likely to accomplish. Does the NEA propose that failing 20-year-olds will suddenly become model students because they are sheltered from entering the world of full-time employment just a bit longer?

Forty-seven percent of the dropouts in the Gates study said that they had left school because classes were “boring.” I’m inclined to point out that every minute of the day doesn’t have to be fascinating, Buster. Still, if the NEA really does want to help more people graduate from high school, more interesting instruction might be better than merely extending the time frame for being bored.

Forty-five percent of the dropouts said that a factor in their decision to leave without a diploma was that they had been “poorly prepared” for high school. So I'm seeing an opening for the NEA here, too: instead of tacking on meaningless years of poor instruction, the NEA might concentrate on ways to improve preparation for high school in the lower grades. Twenty-six percent left school because they had become parents. But don’t dare let anybody mention abstinence!

Forcing kids who are unwilling to learn and likely disruptive to remain in school only hurts those who are there to learn. It also shields them from learning an important lesson in life—decisions have consequences. The decision to leave school without graduating will likely have bad ones.

If young people learn early on that dropping out of school was a mistake, a lesson best learned by bumping up against reality in the job market at the age of sixteen or seventeen, they have a better chance of remedying the ill effects of their bad choices than if they were frittering away more of their time in senior high for seniors.

One option for people who have made the unfortunate decision to leave school is to take literacy and vocational training courses, a path on which they are more likely to be successful if they have made the decision to do so themselves than if the NEA is holding them hostage against their will.

I happen to hope that they will be vouchsafed the highly meaningful privilege of paying for the training, also likely to promote an attitude of seriousness. Government-backed job training programs are generally duds and about as valuable as sitting like a bump on a log in class for a few more years. However, if you really want a job that requires skills and pays well, I’ll bet you can find some night courses to acquire the appropriate skills. But then, of course, the NEA might not get that extra billion a year!

As a former spitball magnet—by which I mean I was a substitute teacher in the New Orleans public schools when I was fresh out of college—I shudder at NEA’s proposal to further infantilize a large portion of our citizens. I’ve seen disruptive sixteen-year-olds who should not have been allowed to make a mockery of the free public education they are offered. They should have heard those magic words that so often herald the onset of adulthood: Get a job.


Charlotte Hays

Director of Cultural Programs at the Independent Women's Forum.