Star Parker
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According to a study recently released by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, high-school graduation rates in California are almost 20 percent less than those officially reported by the California Department of Education.

While the state data show 87 percent of high-school students graduating in 2002, the Harvard study says the graduation rate was 71 percent.

More shocking is the snapshot the study provides of minority graduation rates. Statewide, 57 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Latinos graduate from high school. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, 39 percent of Latinos and 47 percent of blacks graduate.

The California Department of Education does not appear to be challenging the data that Harvard is reporting. The state's data seem to ignore the fact that many kids simply drop out of school, generally between the ninth and 10th grades. These dropouts often get conveniently reported by schools simply as transfers.

The Los Angeles Unified School District consists of 782 schools with 742,000 students who are mostly from poor homes. Sixty percent of the schools in the district have at least 80 percent of their students from low-income families, as measured by the number qualifying for free or subsidized school lunches.

Given that education is the principal predictor of future earning power, we are looking here at a classic cycle of poverty. Poor kids incapable of taking advantage of the single resource available to them - education - that can change their lives.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 1999, the earnings of full-time workers without a high-school degree were 77 percent the earnings of those with high-school degrees and 45 percent of those with bachelor's degrees. The gap between education and earnings widens over time. Back in 1975, those without high-school degrees earned 90 percent of those with high-school degrees and 58 percent of those with bachelor's degrees.

Not only are inner-city high schools factories of hopelessness, but as society becomes more complex, with increasing demands for an educated work force, the hole just gets deeper for kids, overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, who are not getting educated.

The No Child Left Behind Act puts performance pressure on non-performing schools to both improve test scores and graduation rates - or face sanctions.

L.A. school Superintendent Roy Romer says the problem is school size. He has a plan to subdivide existing school campuses into smaller schools that will allow more personal attention for students. The Los Angeles Times reports that Romer has a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation to pursue this project.

I have no reason to question either the diligence or sincerity with which Romer is approaching this prodigious problem. Given the constraints he faces, my guess is he's doing the best he can. However, I have little optimism that he will make much of a difference because the constraints he faces are unreasonable.

The frameworks for standards, reform and sanctions defined by No Child Left Behind are important reforms for our public school system. But the problem is our public school system itself. How do you fix a business that has no competition and for which government itself limits the possibilities for reform?

Poor kids are simply trapped in a government school monopoly where the manner in which education is defined and administered and the values that are conveyed are by and large pre-scripted by a politically correct establishment.

When I log onto the Web site of the National Education Association, the national union of the teachers staffing our public schools, the first thing I see is a headline announcing a study that says "the goals of 'No Child Left Behind' cannot be met without a significant increase in resources." According to the Pacific Research Institute, the L.A. Unified School District spends more than $9,000 per year per student. I am confident that if inner-city parents had $9,000 through a voucher or scholarship to send their child wherever they chose to school, more than one in two would graduate.

Businesses that face competition deliver more and more for less and less. Monopolies deliver less and less for more and more. What else can we expect from the NEA and the government school monopoly than claims that spending is the alleged answer for everything?

Problems today in the inner cities are complex. Many poor families are broken, single-parent homes. This itself is a major predictor for failure in school. Kids from these homes get sent to public schools where prohibitions on providing any framework for values make it impossible to help them find meaning amidst the chaos in which they live. It doesn't take much imagination to predict where this leads.

We can educate these kids. But we need to open the education marketplace, take it out of the hands of the unions and monopolists, and let people who really want to help these families and their children have a chance with them.

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Star Parker

Star Parker is founder and president of CURE, the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, a 501c3 think tank which explores and promotes market based public policy to fight poverty, as well as author of the newly revised Uncle Sam's Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America's Poor and What We Can do About It.