The high school dropout problem is "the new civil rights issue of our time," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared Wednesday in a speech that drew a line from the efforts to desegregate the South a half-century ago to today's struggles over the performance of Los Angeles students, who are predominantly Latino.
Acknowledging that there is wide disagreement about how many students are leaving L.A. schools, Villaraigosa told a conference on dropout issues that "whatever that number is, we are in a crisis."
The mayor, who is campaigning to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District, insisted that he wasn't "throwing stones" at the school system, many of whose top administrators were in the audience at the Leadership Forum on High School Dropouts at USC. But his speech contained plenty of brickbats.
"Make no mistake: There's a culture of complacency in this school district that's got to change," Villaraigosa said.
Schools Supt. Roy Romer, who was not present for the speech, gave his own talk later, defending the district even as he said he welcomed the mayor's "aggressive" approach to the district.
Ticking off the school system's accomplishments during his tenure -- the nation's largest school-construction program, a sharp rise in standardized test scores in elementary schools -- Romer said: "That's not complacency, folks. That's change!"
He added: "We have real challenges going forward. But to deny what we have accomplished together would be foolish." He said the reforms the district has set in place would take years to roll out.
The dropout issue has been at the center of local school reform discussions since last March, when a study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University calculated that only 45% of students were graduating in four years from Los Angeles schools. The rate was even lower for Latino students, and much higher for white and Asian American students. African Americans were close to the districtwide average.
The school district cried foul, saying its figures showed that roughly 70% were graduating, a figure that has since risen. The district uses a different formula to calculate its graduation rate, one that the Harvard researchers and other critics say is deeply flawed.
In his repeated calls to take over the district, which is run by an elected school board, Villaraigosa has said more than half of the district's students drop out. District officials have protested, saying recently that the dropout rate had declined to 24.6% for the 2004-05 school year.
Villaraigosa said it doesn't matter; any of the figures being discussed is too high. Charging that more than 60% of Latinos and African Americans were failing to graduate, the mayor said, "These are numbers that should put a chill down your spine.... We have numbers that are every bit as insidious as the National Guard blocking the door in Little Rock" -- a reference to the efforts by Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus in 1957 to stop black students from integrating all-white schools.
Villaraigosa is not the first person to frame the dropout problem as a civil rights issue. It has been a major thrust of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and of other academic and public policy initiatives.
Gary Orfield, head of the Harvard project, told the standing-room-only conference that turnout for the event was evidence that the issue was being taken seriously, especially in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Unified recently proposed a series of changes designed to keep students in school, several of which matched recommendations made by scholars at the conference.
There is widespread agreement, for instance, that schools need to make more personal connections with students, that they need to keep better track of attendance, and that they need to do a better job of enlisting the help of parents.
Several of the L.A. Unified proposals are aimed at accomplishing those goals.
A new survey of dropouts, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, bolsters some of the arguments behind the reforms, as well as the higher academic standards that California schools are mandating.
The national survey of 467 high school dropouts, scheduled for release today, found that a majority of those surveyed thought they would have worked harder if their schools had higher expectations of them, and that the most common reason given for dropping out was that "classes were not interesting."
"The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts" also reached some conclusions that challenge orthodox assumptions. For instance, nearly 90% of the dropouts reported that they had passing grades when they left school.
Orfield, who is considered one of the foremost scholars on the dropout issue, said that figure sounded wrong "by orders of magnitude."
"All the research suggests that academic failure is one of the basic forces" behind dropping out, he said, adding that high school dropouts are not always reliable informants.
John Bridgeland, president and CEO of Civic Enterprises, a Washington-based public policy firm that conducted the survey, said the researchers had confirmed with the schools that the majority of the dropouts had been passing their classes.
The survey was conducted among former students from schools in 25 cities, suburbs and small towns across the country. The respondents were not a nationally representative sample, the researchers said.
One year's class of high school dropouts will cost California $38.5 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity over their lifetimes, another Washington-based public policy group estimated Wednesday.
"This is a very conservative estimate," said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.