Good intent, questionable remedy

As in many states across America, too many young adults in Ohio are unemployed, disengaged, and on the road to nowhere. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that approximately 140,000 Ohioans aged twenty-five to thirty-four have not earned a high-school diploma. Within this same age bracket, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 85,000 job-seeking young adults (or 7.6 percent of them) are unemployed in the Buckeye State.

Given these alarming statistics, the state’s efforts to support young adults in dire straits is admirable. But Ohio’s House Bill 343, which would extend access to a free and public education to young adults ages twenty-two to twenty-nine, doesn’t get the remedy right. In fact, the bill may provide an antidote more toxic than the ailment it intends to treat.

The legislation would allow up to 1,500 young adults to enroll in a dropout-recovery charter school or a school in a “challenged district” if the adult resides in the district. These students would be allowed to attend the school up to two cumulative years with the purpose of obtaining a high-school diploma. Public aid would fund the enrollment expansion at $5,800 per pupil for fiscal year 2015. The bill requires the State Board of Education to develop reporting and accountability standards for any school that enrolls young adults aged twenty-two to twenty-nine in a dropout-recovery program.

For three reasons, the legislature should think twice before enacting this bill or an omnibus bill that includes the provisions contained in House Bill 343.

First, the bill expands the role of dropout-recovery charters, schools with an unproven track record. Dropout-recovery schools are a special subset of charters that serve students aged sixteen to twenty-one who are at-risk of dropping out or have already done so. Such students may have had histories of low achievement, chronic absenteeism, and high mobility—the state’s most vulnerable young people.

Yet it’s far from clear that dropout-recovery charters are boosting these students’ odds of high-school completion. According to the most recently available data from 2011–12, just four of the state’s seventy-three dropout-recovery charter schools had five-year graduation rates above 60 percent. A near majority of them had five-year graduation rates lower than 20 percent. Of course, bearing in mind the at-risk characteristics of their students, these data must be taken with a grain of salt—but the available evidence suggests that these schools are not getting enough of their pupils to the high-school finish line. Given this, is there reason to believe that dropout-recovery charters will help older adults earn their high-school diplomas?

Second, the state is in the midst of implementing a brand-new accountability system for dropout-recovery charter schools. To its credit, the state legislature enacted House Bill 555 in December 2012, which establishes an alternative accountability system for dropout-recovery charter schools. The new accountability metrics include graduation rates (from a five- to eight-year cohort rate), results on state assessments, annual measurable objectives (AMOs), and a student-growth measure. With so much work still in progress related to accountability for dropout-recovery schools as they are presently constituted, this is an unfortunate time to open a new frontier. Let’s nail down accountability for dropout-recovery schools and then consider expansion.

Third, the state has superior alternatives for reengaging young adults than reenrolling them in a high school, whether a charter or a traditional district. By the time young adults reach their mid- to late-twenties, a high-school diploma might not be the best or only solution. They need job skills (and a job, too). For struggling young adults, Ohio should invest in the work skills that can be obtained through an apprenticeship, high-quality technical program, or community college. House Bill 486 does this, calling for a pilot program for adults without a diploma to attend a community college or a technical program to obtain their high-school diploma and an industry credential. For those who are beyond the age of a traditional high-school student, the state would be wiser to invest in community colleges or technical-training centers rather than high schools.

Young adults deserve a second chance to undo the poor decisions of their past. But House Bill 343, while well intentioned, falls short in its remedy. It relies on schools that evidently struggle to help the students they presently enroll and for which Ohio has yet to determine proper accountability. Meanwhile, state policymakers would do better to look beyond schoolhouses to help young adults get back on track for workplace—and life—success.

To learn more about dropout-recovery charter schools, click here to read the research brief.

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