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High school dropouts go under microscope: IPS seeks answers from leaders on costly problem

November 6, 2006

Indianapolis Public Schools late this month plans to convene a community panel to help the state's largest school system implement a dropout prevention plan next spring.

The first public meeting of the 50-person panel is set for Nov. 27 and comes as a new report suggests Indiana dropouts cost taxpayers $62 million a year. The panel is made up of a wide range of people, from parents to community leaders.

Each of the estimated 21,000 dropouts statewide costs the state $3,000 annually in the form of lost tax revenue, higher Medicaid costs and incarceration, estimates "High Cost of Failing to Reform Public Education in Indiana," a study by the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation that was released Oct. 26.

"I think it's the first really good financial quantification of what dropouts cost Indiana," said Robert Enlow, executive director of the foundation, which was started by Nobel laureate and economist Milton Friedman.

IPS Superintendent Eugene White has made dropout prevention a top priority for the 2006-2007 school year. He's also pushing for a new dress code and for a series of benchmark tests every 4-1/2 weeks, with remediation for those who fail.

Among those slated to serve on the dropout task force are David Guarino, manager of education policy at the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, and Harry McFarland, who heads the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

Dropout studies like those of the Friedman Foundation only give more ammunition to proponents of school choice initiatives. IPS, perhaps more than other metro area school districts, is already starting to feel the pinch of charter schools that have popped up over the last three years.

Charters are public schools that control their own curriculum and budgeting. They get the same per-pupil funding other public schools receive, but in return for more freedom a charter school must meet student performance and fiscal goals or risk having its charter revoked.

There are now 16 charter schools in Marion County with more than 2,700 students.

According to a recent report by The Indianapolis Star, White supposedly was asking Mayor Bart Peterson to put a moratorium on creating additional charter schools, noting enrollment declines at IPS.

White was not trying to convey that he is inherently "anti-charter," said district spokeswoman Mary Louise Bewley. But he wants the mayor to be more sensitive when approving new charter schools so they aren't only in IPS territory, she said.

At least four of the six latest applications on Peterson's desk would open charter schools in IPS territory, including one in the more-affluent Meridian-Kessler neighborhood.

Groups like the Friedman Foundation want to take school choice much further, giving parents vouchers good at any number of institutions. Recently, Indiana's House Republicans pledged to push for personal tax credits and corporate tax-funded scholarships in the next session of the Legislature.

"When you get a chance to choose, you're more invested" in the outcome, said Friedman Foundation's Enlow.

Voucher proponents say school choice programs in other cities such as Milwaukee have actually improved the public schools through the competitive effect.

The study found that "if all of Indiana's residents of working age had obtained at least a high school diploma, total earnings in Indiana in 2005 would have been $4.4 billion higher."
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