When I heard Jason Glass, Iowa’s new head of the Department of Education, announce the uptick in high school graduation rates, I thought that perhaps he was a little quick on the trigger to talk about what a great job everyone was doing in getting more kids across the stage each May. Though the Iowa graduation rate is commendable given current social and economic conditions, as Mr. Glass stated, there is a lot of work to be done. Maybe we need to go inside the numbers a little to see what the real situation might be. This approach is particularly important when one considers that Iowa continues to lose competitive advantage economically and must take on courageous reform efforts in not only education, but in tax policy and immigration enforcement. And if one thinks that things in Wisconsin are not related to this three headed hydra, then one is not paying attention.
Right now, Iowa enjoys an 88.8 percent graduation rate. This is a one percent increase over the 2009 rate and is well above the national average. Of course, we are not sure what system was used to calculate the graduation rate, because national data indicate a significantly different picture. According to some sources, the Iowa graduation rate rests around 84 percent with the national average around 70 percent. We do really well when compared to the rest of the country as do most of our neighboring states. In fact, except for Illinois and Missouri, our surrounding states enjoy comparable graduation rates. So, overall, it appears we are doing OK and are improving. However, let’s look at the larger cities in Iowa and see how those rates compare.
I looked at the 2010 graduation rates for all the districts in the state and found some interesting numbers. Graduation rates below 80 percent in Iowa, or any state for that matter, ought to be a huge red flag. The reason for this indicator being so important is what comes with lower graduation rates. On average, non-high school graduates earn roughly half of what graduates do. The likelihood of non-graduates engaging in criminal behavior is, according to one source, 20 times higher than for high school graduates. Non-graduates are more likely to have children out of wedlock (a cost of $120 billion to taxpayers each year) and are far more likely to live in poverty. Poverty and success in school are negatively correlated. In Iowa, as in the rest of the country, illegal immigrant children are not as successful in school as are legal immigrant and native born children. Perhaps most disturbing of all the statistics in educational attainment is that African-American children are falling further behind the rest of those being educated in our public schools.
In Iowa, the following districts had graduation rates below 80 percent—Atlantic, Burlington, Clinton, Des Moines, English Valleys, Fort Madison, Muscatine, New London, Sigourney, Sioux City, Ventura, Waterloo and Woodward-Granger. The one district with the most disturbing graduation rate is Sigourney with a rate below 70 percent. This rate is below the national average and should be cause of great concern. Further, one should note that several of Iowa’s larger urban districts (Des Moines in particular) are on the list of those operating far below the state average. There are probably lots of reasons for each of these districts underperforming, but recognizing all the contributing factors to growing populations living in poverty ought to be a good first step. These include members of the respective communities who are in this country illegally, who cannot speak English, who do not possess the work skills to earn the income that might lead to ownership of real property and those who are discouraged from seeking opportunities to climb the American socio-economic ladder.
Right now, the Governor and legislature in Wisconsin is attempting to pass legislation that would have public employees pay part of their health insurance, contribute to their own retirement funds, pay their own union dues, require recertification of public unions each year by secret ballot and would disallow benefits being part of the collective bargaining process. The state faces a $3.5 billion deficit and the state government must balance the budget. As difficult as this legislation might be for public employees, the 98K teachers represented by unions in Wisconsin are losing the moral high ground because they have abandoned their schools and the children they are supposed to teach. Further, democrat legislators have abandoned the state so that the legislature cannot bring these issues to a vote. Again, this is not sitting well with the people of Wisconsin. Sooner or later, this bill will come to a vote and it will pass. Public employment in Wisconsin will never be the same.
Across the country, people are watching very closely. Iowans ought to be paying very close attention, because sooner or later, we will have to deal with the very same issues. The education establishment in Iowa ought to be making sure they have a strong graduation rate going for them, and frankly, 88 percent isn’t going to cut it. This is particularly true when we see most of the rural school districts lifting the urban districts. Maybe we need to start fixing things in Des Moines and see what works, then migrate those fixes to the rest of urban Iowa. Being “as good as” our neighbors is not nearly as compelling as being “the best” in the country.
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