Mull: How to Prevent High School Dropouts? Give Families the Schools They Want

Catholic High School Students Spencer PlattGetty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Last month was National Dropout Prevention Month. The media has been eagerly reporting that high school graduation rates have reached a record high, though “incomplete or fuzzy” district data makes such claims questionable.

Nevertheless, as points out, “As long as we aren’t at a 100 percent graduation rate, there is still work to be done.”

Listed among the reasons students drop out of school on are “missed too many days of school,” “was getting poor grades/failing school,” “could not get along with teachers,” “did not feel [I] belonged there,” “did not feel safe,” and “did not like school.” Family and employment factors were also found to have affected students’ decisions to drop out of school.

The reasons students drop out of school are as abundant and unique as the students themselves, and there’s no one glaring reason why students drop out. There is, however, one obvious solution that has the ability to help kids who need it the most: school choice.

“Missed too many days of school” is a broad reason for why many students might drop out of school, and it encompasses any number of explanations, including sickness, a tumultuous family situation, or a student who is bored or bullied at school. Maybe these students would be more apt to show up to class and perform better if they were to get some extra sleep. Perhaps they don’t get along with their teachers. Maybe some of the students are pregnant, or have to work two jobs to provide for their family because their caretaker is disabled. Perhaps the demands of the school are too stringent, or structured in such a way so that the school day doesn’t sync with their lifestyle, needs, or abilities.

A 2005 report from the Manhattan Institute found “increasing the choice parents have in their child’s school district contributes to higher public high school graduation rates.” Making districts smaller, the authors wrote, “[increases] the choice that parents have in the school system that educates their child. By making it easier to relocate from one school system’s jurisdiction to the next, smaller school districts make it possible for a larger number of families to exercise choice among different school districts. The more families are able to move from district to district, the less students can be taken for granted by schools, which, for a variety of reasons, don’t want to lose enrollment.”

Unfortunately, “taking students for granted” is often what giant, government-run schools do best. Too often, education is viewed as a means for adults to make money, keep a cushy job, and/or receive a pension and benefits, regardless of their performance as teachers. When school is more about the adults than the children, kids drop out. But when families have access to schools that put their children first, are willing and able to innovate and accommodate the students with alternative schedules, learning methods, and the like, kids are more likely to stay in school. In fact, school choice programs have been proven to benefit poor and minority students, who often face a disproportionate number of challenges.

School choice is beneficial even to people who don’t have kids or don’t care much about them but still pay taxes. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier in 2017 a study by researchers at the University of Arkansas found Milwaukee’s voucher program “will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“Using data from a crime and graduation study by Corey DeAngelis and Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, the Milwaukee study finds that through 2035 Wisconsin will receive a $473 million benefit from higher graduation rates by choice students,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “More education translates into higher incomes, more tax revenue and a lower likelihood of reliance on government welfare or other payments. Meanwhile, greater economic opportunity also prevents young adults from turning to crime, which the study estimates will save Wisconsin $1.7 million from fewer misdemeanors and $24 million from fewer felonies over the same 20 years.”

School choice makes all schools better, and better schools create happier students who are less likely to drop out. There are countless reasons why a student might be inclined to drop out, and the best thing we can do is offer him or her as many options as possible to make sure that doesn’t happen. The one-size-fits-all model is failing kids who need help the most, so let’s fix it using pro-liberty, free-market policies that benefit students and taxpayers alike.

Teresa Mull ( is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.


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