Budget woes dampen Henn. Co. schools effortby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
For all the education debate that's sure to be had at the Capitol next year, there's one idea everyone can probably agree on: kids have to stay in school if they want to be successful.
But in the state's largest county, Hennepin, 2,000 high schoolers drop out each year. The county recently came up with a way to address that -- but even that new effort is in danger of becoming a victim of the times.
Minneapolis, Minn. — The Hennepin County Board recently committed itself to doing whatever it can to improve graduation rates.
But that same board is about to pass a new $1.7 billion budget for 2009 that cuts, among other things, funding for programs that try to get truant kids back in school.
Is it a contradiction?
First, let's explore why a county government would even care about education. Education is the job of school districts, yes, but counties are more involved than you think - especially when students get into trouble.
"If you get a kid in a juvenile corrections system, they can cost $50,000 a year and up," said Commissioner Penny Steele. She said the county's new graduation effort, called A-GRAD, is as much about saving money as saving kids.
"Statistically, children who are on track educationally don't engage in the criminal justice system," she noted. "So the payback is actually fairly quick."
Steele points to studies that verify what's probably a wide belief: drop-outs don't get jobs or buy homes, so they don't pay income or other taxes or contribute much to society, she said.
Instead, taxpayers take care of them, with services like welfare or health care and, in the worse cases, housing them in county-run jails. By committing the county to helping reduce drop outs, it will save money.
But there's a problem.
"There was no consistency in terms of looking how the county was investing those dollars," noted Betty Jo Webb, a former teacher, administrator, and charter school founder turned school consultant.
Webb sat on the advisory board that came up with the new county graduation effort and said the board found more than $100 million the county spends each year, either educating kids or helping those who've run afoul. But there was no set of guidelines to measure whether programs were effective.
"And as a matter of fact it was inconsistent from department to department," she added. "Some departments said they know what they're investing in and know how to measure; some said they had a pretty good idea of what they're investing in but they don't measure; and some, the answer was 'no' on both sides," Webb said.
As the county becomes more consistent, Webb says maybe it will find other ways to help. County social workers on a home visit, for example, cannot necessarily order tutoring if they find a child who can't read.
In theory, the new A-GRAD effort will help the county make the needed changes. But only if there's money.
And that takes us back to the earlier question: Why would a county board dedicate itself to improving graduation rates one day, then cut funds for efforts like truancy the next?
One of the main trauncy offices in the County's Human Service Department will lose 10 case managers who counsel truant kids.
But County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin says those don't necessarily contradict; just because you're trying to improve graduation rates, he says, that doesn't mean you automatically keep funding every education-related program.
"I think the notion of sacred cows is pretty much a thing of the past," said McLaughlin. "The challenge here is making sure you don't compromise the goal."
"You may change how you do things, and I think that is the imperative, but don't compromise the goal, or compromise the goal any more than you have to."
County leaders say they will likely revisit issues like truancy as the graduation effort takes off in coming months.
But that doesn't guarantee any more money. And depending on how the state government addresses its shortfall, commissioners say they might even have to come back in a few months to make more cuts.
- Morning Edition, 12/05/2008, 7:45 a.m.