Ken Hare In Depth: Question fast improvements in graduation rate - WFXG FOX54 Augusta - Your News One Hour Earlier

Ken Hare In Depth: Question fast improvements in graduation rates

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

By far the most fascinating story of recent weeks has involved the ongoing attempt by the governor to get to the bottom of allegations originally raised by the former president of Alabama State University, and the reaction of those ASU leaders placed under scrutiny by those allegations and a follow-up forensic audit of the university.

But there have been other issues that deserve attention since this story broke, so I'd like to touch on some of those in a column that addresses a little of this and that.

EDUCATION MATTERS TO EVERYONE

Before the subject got pushed aside by the release of the preliminary forensic audit of ASU, I was working on a column about the appearance of former Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia before a recent conference of the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Since leaving public office, Wise has championed education improvements nationally, currently serving as executive director of the national Alliance for Excellent Education. He is a fan of many of the education reforms adopted in Alabama under former Gov. Bob Riley, especially the Alabama Reading Initiative. He still praises that initiative, although urging that the state expand it to all grades, and he praises the state's recent adoption -- along with most other states --of tougher curriculum standards.

But perhaps the most telling points made by Wise in his presentation came when he pointed out the dramatic effects on the state's economy if Alabama could raise its graduation rate to 90 percent from the current rate of about 75 percent.

According to Wise, the 13,000 additional graduates that would result from increasing the rate would:

-- Add $139 million in gross earnings to the state's economy.

-- Create 1,150 new jobs.

-- Boost home sales by $241 million and auto sales by $15 million.

-- Generate $8.9 million in increased tax revenue.

I strongly believe that increasing the state's graduation rate could be the single most important education change that the state could make. But that belief comes with two important caveats.

The first is that any meaningful improvement in the state's graduation rate must be built on a solid foundation of improved academic performance. And that must start in the early years of public education -- at least somewhere in the first three years of school, and for many children, even in pre-kindergarten.

Sure, it's possible to rescue a few students late in their academic careers -- in middle school and even a few in high school. But that's only for the handful of students who are already very close to meeting minimum academic standards and who can be helped across the line through programs such as the state's credit recovery process and through tutoring, etc. But most students who do not graduate are too far behind by the time they reach high school to catch up in a few weeks or even months.

Which brings me to the second caveat: The public should look askance at any quick and dramatic improvement in graduation rates, either at a particular high school or at the local school system level.

The grade-changing scandal in Montgomery County involved at least to some degree the state's credit recovery program, and a recent investigation into Selma City Schools raised similar questions.

Any quick and major turnaround in graduation rates that cannot be traced to improved academic performance in earlier grades should be questioned.  

ANOTHER STUDY LAUDS MEDICAID EXPANSION

Now that President Obama's Affordable Care Act has withstood a challenge from conservatives in Congress, it's time for the state's political leaders to acknowledge the clear wisdom of taking advantage of available federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage to the families of the working poor in Alabama.

Another recent study makes it clear that using federal dollars to expand Medicaid would be the single biggest boost that the state could have to its economy.

The study by the University of Alabama's Center for Business and Economic Research said expanding the state's Medicaid program would create 30,700 new jobs over the next six years.

That's enough new jobs to have the state bounce back completely from the economic downturn of the past several years.

For the first three years, virtually all of that expansion would be covered by federal dollars. After that, 90 percent would be paid for by the federal government.

Of course, there already were plenty of studies that show the economic benefits of expansion.  But philosophic and political differences with Obamacare have kept many politicians from endorsing it.

But Alabama not expanding Medicaid won't stop Obamacare. And Alabamians will be seeing their taxes used  to expand Medicaid in other states even if Alabama doesn't expand. The only difference is that the other states will be seeing improvements in their economies and greater access to health care for their citizens while Alabama continues to stand still.

THOMPSON BOWED OUT WITH CLASS

As I noted in an earlier column, former Montgomery Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Thompson did not create the problems that plague the county's public schools; most existed prior to her coming and they won't go away just because she's gone.

But those Montgomerians who remember the public acrimony and heated accusations that surrounded the firing of Carlinda Purcell as superintendent several years ago can appreciate that Thompson bowed out with class.            

Sure, some of Thompson's supporters were emotional and heated following the decision to push her out. But Thompson herself left with her dignity intact. And that's no small accomplishment.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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