SACRAMENTO — The incoming leader of the state Senate said Thursday that he wants to overhaul California's programs for reducing the number of high school dropouts, calling it a top legislative priority.
Under existing requirements, Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles would be allowed to take more than two centuries to bring its graduation rate up to 82.9%, which is the current state standard, said Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).
Steinberg, who will take over as Senate president pro tem in November, has drafted a bill that would reset the bar for schools in California to boost the number of students who make it to graduation.
"We think 250 years is slightly too long," he said. "It's unacceptable. The current goal, to put it charitably, is not nearly ambitious enough."
The idea of setting higher graduation goals is supported by many education experts, including state Education Secretary David Long.
"There has to be that perfect balance between raising the bar and making it achievable, because school districts have a lot of other things on their plates," Long said.
However, Delaine Eastin, a former state superintendent of public instruction, said the Legislature would have to come up with more money to help schools increase their graduation rates, adding that after-school and preschool programs are important elements.
"They are going to have to make some investment. It's not easy, and it's not free," she said.
Los Angeles Board of Education President Monica Garcia also supports Steinberg's goal. "I appreciate the urgency in this bill," she said. "For too long our graduation rates have not been acceptable. I see this bill as about accelerating the pace of change."
Garcia faulted the state for failing to adequately fund schools, leaving the Los Angeles Unified School District with crowded classrooms and year-round calendars that she said ultimately affect graduation rates. Proposed state budget cuts also will do substantial additional damage, she said.
"Schools are always being asked to do more with less. That has to stop," Garcia said.
Acknowledging that money is tight this year, Steinberg said that changing the standards now will create the foundation for faster improvement in future years when money is more available.
Under state rules set up to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools must either meet a graduation-rate goal or improve by 0.1 percentage point per year to avoid sanctions.
The 2007 graduation rate target is 82.9%. State education officials said they intended all along to install a more rigorous system once the state adopted a reliable data system.
Crenshaw High had a 56.9% graduation rate in the 2005-06 school year, the last for which figures were available. L.A. Unified had a rate of 63.9% that year.
As it is, Crenshaw's rate has been heading in the wrong direction: It declined over the previous two years. The district's graduation rate also dropped last year.
Steinberg, a former educator, plans to introduce legislation today that would set the graduation rate goal at 90%.
If that goal is not met, a school with Crenshaw's performance could comply by raising its graduation rate 3.3 percentage points in two years.
If schools fail to meet standards, the state can impose sanctions on the schools, ranging from sending in assistance teams to closing the campus entirely.
When Crenshaw parent Glenn Windom first learned of the school's high number of dropouts, "I was angry. It was horrible," she said.
Because there is widespread skepticism about the accuracy of the graduation rates now reported to the state, (Steinberg and Eastin, among others, believe the rates are inflated) the senator's bill would make enforcement of the new standards contingent on the state's devising a more accurate method of reporting the rates. That might not happen until 2011.
Still, the new legislation is welcome for building on past reforms addressing the graduation rate, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project and an education professor at UCLA.
Without attention to graduation rates, he said, the state's accountability system "rewards schools that push out kids with low scores."