California's High School Drop Out Crisis

Posted on 30 June 2010

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By Duane Campbell

California has a Secretary of Education as well as a Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Superintendent organizes the state educational programs and implements state mandates. The Secretary of Education is an advisor to the Governor. The current Secretary is Bonnie Reiss, about the 5th Secretary under Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Secretary Reiss has a letter to the editor in the Sacramento Bee of Tues. June 29, responding to an earlier column by Dan Walters about the state’s persistent high drop out rate. The letter is a classic piece of propaganda.

You begin with the statement, “schools with effective teachers and effective principals do well and those with ineffective teachers and ineffective principals do not. “  She is correct. But, in the service of propaganda, this statement tells only a part of the story. It says something you agree with in order to introduce the propaganda message. She then goes on to say, “It is time for California to join the national education reform movement and change state law to move away from our current failed system that is based solely on teacher seniority.”  That is the propaganda piece.

Lets see. There are schools with high levels of drop outs, and schools with very low level of dropouts. The high drop out schools tend to be in poverty areas and the low drop out schools tend to be in upper middle class areas. Both groups of schools have precisely the same teacher seniority requirements. That is, there is no evidence that teacher seniority leads to the high drop out crisis in California.

I have  taught in public schools and university teacher preparation programs for over 40 years and written books on this subject.  Lets look a little deeper.

California has had a chronic drop out problem since at least 1969 and the drop outs are concentrated in low income schools. The problem has not been improved.  In the last two years the Governor has cut $16 billion from school budgets, will that make matters better or worse? As the Robles-Wong v California lawsuit asserts California spends $2131 less dollars per student than the national average.(

Significant budget cuts increase class size. Large class sizes mean that many 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders are not learning to read well- even with good teachers.  These students will be future drop outs.

Severe budget cuts at the high school levels produce immediate drop outs. Most counselors have been eliminated. California ranks 49th out of the 50 states in counselors per student. There are few counselors to look after students who fall behind or get in difficulty. California ranks 49th out of the 50 states in librarians.  Severe budget cuts eliminate supplemental support programs such as having probation officers working with the schools. 

As a result you have more disruptive student in classes. Even good teachers have difficulty when there are large numbers of disruptive students in classes.  More disruption leads to more students failing. There is more gang violence and more gang related crime as gang intervention workers are laid off.  

It is precisely the 30 year history of under funding our schools, accelerated under the Schwarzenegger administration that is the problem. As described in prior posts, the state is not the blame for the economic crisis. That was the work of the Wall Street bankers. However, the state is responsible for the response to the economic crisis- and it is failing.


Duane Campbell is a Professor of Bilingual/Multicultural Education at Calif. State University-Sacramento and the author of Choosing Democracy; a practical guide to multicultural education. (Merrill/Pren Hall.2004). Duane is the Sacramento County coordinator of the Majority Rule Campaign and author of the Choosing Democracy blog.

California schools rather than work hard to keep kids in school really work hard at expelling kids for dumb things they do such as fights. I grew up in a family of 11 and have 5 children of my own, news flash kid’s fight! We slash education when things get tough, but go on a prison building binge at a time we are cutting education, look up AB900. Any second grader and tell you that is bad public policy and makes no sense at all. It is prison spending that should be slashed and education expanded. School districts should do everything possible to keep in school because those kids are the future. And if you want the best for our children, don’t invest in prisons! Invest in education!

I'm sure more money probably wouldn't hurt the situation... but I think its far from a solution. California has a VALUES problem. You can't solve values with money or through laws. We need to step up and declare education as a value within our families and communities. We make it too easy to succeed/survive without actually having put the work in to doing so. High school is ridiculously easy. Showing up is pretty much all you have to do in most schools.