8 February 2012
The hottest new idea in education was, statewide, students should be prevented from leaving school before they turn 18.
Well those were the first tweets on the Stay in School Act.
In Fishtown, it made perfect statistical sense. All the numbers show that a high school graduate is far more likely to work and less likely to be on welfare, let alone in jail.
Fishtown, you will recall, is an iconic working class neighborhood:
made famous by social commentator Charles Murray, where working class people—far from clinging bitterly to guns and religion—are sinking helplessly into unemployment and family breakdown.
The reformers pled passionately on the steps of the state capitol for the Act: “Vaccinate our kids against poverty!,” they sang.
Critics, of course, suggested shadier reasons for the proposed law:
True, the Fishtown dropout rate was about 50%. So the proposed new law funded the education establishment for two extra years of every such student’s life. Besides, detaining students in high school kept them out of the legal labor force, which made the state’s employment numbers look better.
The reformers, of course, just sighed at these accusations and said that they reveal clearly to the world how little the critics care for the students. The Stay in School Act, of course, passed.
But the problems did not dissipate with the crowds of successful lobbyists. Even the reformers were unclear how to enforce the new law. Many under-18 dropouts were both working (legally or otherwise) and living with partners. Many girls were expecting. While these teens might be greatly disadvantaged as adults, they were already living like adults.
The students who were most likely to drop out knew about the problems cited by the reformers (poverty, welfare, addiction, illegitimacy, breakups, breakdowns, jail). That was just life, as far as they were concerned. For them, the difference between school and a low-wage job is that the job pays. The law—if ever enforced—would mean going to jail (= school) for the temporary crime of being under 18.
However, there was a middle group—students who might drop out but knew of reasons to stay. Some could get funding for a post-diploma trade school or college course. Others had a parent who wouldn’t let a dropout live at home for free. Some were caught up in a team, a club, a crush, a vendetta, and before they knew it, the graduation prom was only two months away. Did the legislation persuade them to persevere? That’s hard to say because it wasn’t enforced. Many never knew it was on the books.
Because the law was never enforced, Central High’s principal did not need to resort to such tactics as paying unwilling mid-teen students to stay home during school inspections.
A small group of students, usually girls, could actually have been helped by the Stay in School legislation, but only if it were enforced. They were under pressure to quit school. In some cases, they were expected to work in the underage-sex trade; in others, to enter a polygamous or child marriage overseas. However, critics pointed out that enforcing no-nonsense criminal law, already on the books and long established, would be far more effective in protecting their rights as American citizens.
In the end, the Stay in School Act joined all the other programs that never resulted in any key change at Fishtown Central High, where Jane South will probably go to school in a few years.
Next: What’s right, but more important, what’s wrong with all these “how to fix Fishtown Central High” schemes?