Princeton University

Houston Schools Deal With Diversity and Drop-outs

At the end of June 2007 the Supreme Court made a split 5-4 ruling that limits the ability of schools to use race as a factor in determining student participation in academic programs like magnet schools. Around that same time, the Alliance for Excellence in Education released a study out of Princeton University that reports the cost of high school drop-outs to the country over the next decade will be about $3 trillion.

Houston Schools will have to make some decisions in years to come based on both of these results. The Supreme Court decision has been brewing for decades. While Houston Schools do not use race as admission to magnets, the specialized schools were started for the purpose of desegregation. And the current battle over the issue of achieving racially balanced schools by using race as a factor is a tense one. Houston Schools won’t have to make changes to its magnets, as other schools in the country will. But – the Houston Schools will still need to focus on ways to address the huge racial achievement gap.

The Princeton study, conducted by Cecelia Rouse, a professor of economics and public affairs, released some disturbing statistics for both Houston Schools and the entire state of Texas. Individually, every high school drop-out costs the United States $260,000. In Texas, only 66.8% of high schoolers make it to graduation. And a 2006 USA Today article reported that less than 50% of Houston Schools students graduate on time. In that same year the Princeton Study reported that drop-outs cost the state of Texas over $31 billion.

What explains these numbers? Educators in Houston Schools aren’t surprised by the numbers. They have know for years facts that the study cites from numerous sources; that high school graduates in the Houston Schools (and the nation) are less likely to become teen parents than drop-outs; they raise healthier and better educated children; commit less crimes; and use less public services (welfare, food stamps) and less government healthcare. It’s the cumulative cost of these factors that make the drop-out rate so costly for Houston Schools.

How is that affected by the recent Supreme Court Ruling? The question is race. Houston Schools face a significant gap in graduation rates between white and non-white students. In 2006 the racial breakdown of the percentage of students who graduated on time from Texas Schools looked like this: Asians 83%, Whites 75%, African-Americans 60% and Hispanics 25%. Houston Schools follow these numbers closely.

Although Houston Schools magnet programs aren’t currently affected by the new ruling, expect to see more changes on the horizon. The ruling only prohibits schools from using race as the single determining factor for admission to magnet programs. It still leaves room for questions about- using it as one of many factors, the role of charter schools, and the multitude of ways schools try to achieve racial balance. The parents of Houston Schools students are torn. Some are ready to scrap any evidence of racial profiling for use in academics. Others fear that the elimination of attempts to balance racial mix will result in a return to largely segregated schools where minority and low income students suffer in the worst areas, in crumbling buildings, and with the least qualified teachers. The future of Houston Schools’ success at closing the achievement gap is still murky. But the vision of further initiatives, court rulings, and studies on the role of race in education is certain.