For the chairman of the Wyoming Senate Education Committee, high school graduation rates are a matter of fiscal responsibility.

"We're spending a huge amount of money on education, and don't feel like we're getting the results we want," Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, said.

Since 2001, the state's four-year high school graduation rate has hovered at around 80 percent, according to the Wyoming Department of Education. This one-in-five dropout statistic has been a troubling talking point for politicians, leaders in education and the media. Laws to keep kids in school have been drafted and fallen away, battered by resistance from constituencies wary of a too-strong state hand in education.

The problem is more than just a problem on paper. The state's steady stream of students walking away from high school affects today's budgets, tomorrow's economic growth and Wyoming's ability to responsibly disperse state dollars, lawmakers say.


Return on investment

When talking about high school graduation rates, Coe said, the "real commentary" has to do with education accountability -- holding the state accountable for the nearly $1.7 billion it funnels into its education system every year.

Wyoming was the nation's fifth biggest education spender in the United States during the 2010-2011 school year, according to per-student calculations from the National Education Association. The state spent $15,997 on each kindergartner through 12th-grader enrolled in Wyoming public schools that year -- one-third more than the national average.

Wyoming also outspent its neighbors. The state topped Nebraska's $10,433 and Montana's $9,973 per student price tags in the 2010-2011 school year, and more than doubled Utah's $6,672.

For that expenditure, Coe said, the state's return on investment is not what it should be. Wyoming's four-year high school graduation rate hovers around the statistical middle of the road in the nation -- 25th, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That's well behind Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Montana -- states Wyoming regularly outspends.

"We invest a tremendous amount in our children," said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, also a member of the Senate's education committee. "If we're not graduating the students, then we're not getting that return on investment."

Rothfuss and Coe sponsored a bill during the last legislative session to combat what has been a steady stream of students leaving high school before graduation. Senate File 96 would have required every Wyoming high school student to attend school through the 12th grade or until their 18th birthday, unless a parent agreed otherwise. Today, state statute requires Wyoming students stay in school until they're 16 or done with the 10th grade.

The bill died in the Senate on a 12-18 vote.

Raising the age for legally dropping out of high school would have gone a long way toward demonstrating the state "is serious" about seeing its high school graduation rate increase, Rothfuss said.

"I don't think you can seriously address dropout if you don't raise the expectation," he said. "It's a necessary component of an action plan."

Though Rothfuss doesn't know whether his bill would have the necessary two-thirds' majority support to be introduced in the Legislature's upcoming budget session, he said he is not giving up on pushing for the statutory age change just yet.

"That's a piece of legislation that will come up again," he said.


Straining the state

High school dropouts in the U.S. earn less than high school graduates. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2009 the nationwide median income for adults without a high school degree was $25,000. For high school graduates or workers with a GED certificate, that figure jumped to $43,000.

In Wyoming, most jobs requiring less than a high school diploma paid less than $30,000 in 2011, according to Wyoming Department of Workforce Services data. 

Students dropping out of high school end up generating less tax revenue, have more reliance on Medicaid and unemployment programs and have a greater likelihood of ending up in prison in their lifetime, according to the NCES report.

Workforce Services does not track unemployment distribution by education levels, nor does the Wyoming Department of Health track high school dropouts among the state's Medicaid recipients.

But one arena feels the strain of high school dropouts, and has acted to combat the trend.

One of every four inmates who walked into a Wyoming prison during the past calendar year had neither a high school diploma nor GED, said Betty Abbott, Correctional Education Programs manager for the Wyoming Department of Correction. The average Wyoming inmate was reading, speaking and doing math like an eighth-grader, according to a DOC report.

Looking at national trends, Abbott said, more inmates enter Wyoming prisons with at least a GED than most other states. 

"The goal is to get all of our offenders who don't have that [high school diploma] when they come in to leave with a GED," Abbott said. 

Abbott has worked in special education since 1983, and has worked in correctional facilities across the West for 15 years. She said prospects for sustainable employment are slim if an inmate leaves without their GED.

"They're going to be the last ones anybody chooses," Abbott said.

The state's correctional education program graduated 136 inmates in 2012. Abbott said her department is starting to track employment when offenders leave prison. She hopes to correlate job placement rates to level of education, widening an already robust body of evidence that suggests the higher an offender's education level, the lower his or her chance of ending up in a jail cell again.

"If they can get a sustainable job, they won't come back," she said.


A change in the equation

What wasn't a problem decades ago may very well be an issue today. While high-school dropouts 30 years ago may have been able to walk from the halls of a high school into a good-paying job in the state's booming energy industry, officials say that may no longer be the case.

Major industry leaders and lawmakers alike report increasingly technical jobs that, in most cases, preclude high school dropouts from a shot at open positions.

Since Coe joined the Legislature in 1989, he said, the levels of education needed in the state's energy industry have changed.

"The old days of kids being able to go to the oil patch and make good money, that's not necessarily the case anymore," Coe said. "That part of the equation has changed."

Three-dimensional seismic surveying technology outdid simpler two-dimensional technology in the 1990s, providing more complete information on the size and scope of an underground formation but requiring workers in the field to have an unprecedented hold on algebra and science skills, said Wyoming Petroleum Association President Bruce Hinchey.

"It has become a much more technical industry over the years," he said.

A high school diploma or GED is a minimum for construction jobs these days, said Wyoming Contractors Association Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Downing.

"The industry's changed," Downing said. "Equipment has gotten more modernized with new technologies. You normally need somebody with a good head on their shoulders."

A high school degree, he said, shows commitment and an ability to learn. 

"You're not going to have as many employability issues," Downing said.

Even the trucking industry has become more complex, said Sheila Foertsch, managing director for the Wyoming Trucking Association.

Truck engines have built-in computer systems. Recent federal regulations mandate calculations to distribute a truck's load with precision unheard of decades ago.

"The skills are becoming more and more technical all the time," Foertsch said.

A high school degree or GED may open a door for a job, said Anadarko government relations adviser Dennis Ellis. Plenty of post-secondary or technical programs -- the McMurry Training Center in Casper, for instance -- train the industry's future generation of oil and gas workers.

"But without your high school diploma, you can't even begin to get the training you need to begin to work in the energy industry," he said.

Reach county reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.

(7) comments

side oiler
side oiler

Look at the single mommy problem now days,therein lies the reason why many do not ever get ahead...too easy to get on welfare.


This topic should stay on the front page as a constant reminder for anyone who really cares. To see the problem with a bit better perspective, we need to jump back to the 1990's. School funding was a hot topic as it was more dependent on local wealth -assessed valuation. The education community wanted more funds and wanted it from the State, not local sources. Education "leaders" bonded and ultimately the justice system made up the new rules. Organizations like WSBA - Wyoming School Boards Assn- morphed into little more than special interest lobbying groups, local school districts lobbied for "local control" while demanding statewide wealth redistribution, national consultants saw Wyoming as fertile ground for expensive experimentation, etc. In the process, everything became more important than student achievement. Districts wanted better buildings, expanded sports programs and facilities, higher pay especially for administrative positions, and no room for accountability. For the most part, the districts - mostly we are talking about Boards and Superintendents - got rewarded. And the patrons got the sad results reflected in the article.
Have we learned much? Hopefully we now know that money is not the cure-all. Maybe it is occurring to some that education is more than just a job, that it has to be a passion, and there is only one priority - student outcomes. My local district epitomizes the flaws in the recent evolutions - we have football, basketball and all sorts of athletic facilities and championships, leading edge pay programs for a bloated administrative staff, 4 new school buildings (out of 5 total) in the last 8-10 years, and a high school of 100 students per grade level that thinks a graduation level of above 80% is good and merely needs improvement attention. Our School Board is mostly focused on showing internal solidarity and bragging about "being better than the districts down the road" than they are about the 10+ high school students they lose every year because "the students didn't come with a will to learn". We have an extended excuse for any shortfall, so all is well in our version of Lake Woebegone. Guess what folks, outcomes won't change until we change the leadership mentality. Try electing Boards that don't feel the need for extensive athletic programs, higher paid Superintendents, and new walls and roofs, and who believe that excuses are for those not committed to the real goal - student outcomes. Anything less is a perpetuation of "feel good" mentality that got us into this mess..


Sports and activities dominate schools. More emphasis is placed on extracurricular activities than education. Everything from basket weaving to volleyball. In a rural state like Wyoming huge amounts of funds are spent on sports. Travel, lighting, facilities, etc; I had four children go through the system. As a parent I you see the flaws but have no say. Some kids need to be funneled into a vocational system, others into the three R's. Some kids can build, do mechanical, welding, etc: and exceed only to be shoved into algebra, history, and science. Kids are different. We need welders and mechanics, as well as doctors, scientists and librarians.

Part of the reason graduation rates being so low, if I were 17, and tired of algebra, history, and reading, and get in trouble at school a lot, the easy way out, go to work in the oil or coal industry and make more than your teacher. Happens a lot. Not everyone can be a or wants to be a college graduate. Some one has to pour the concrete or roof the houses, or drill the wells. Other than the self feeding two year colleges here in Wyoming, how many kids go on to use athletics? Another whole story, drugs. It has a huge effect. As for the school system itself, how many positions are stacked in the system? Superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal, vice principal, executive secretary, assistant secretaries, and on and on. Stacked like a big corporation gone bad. My parents received a better education than myself or my kids at a one room, one teacher school house.


DK - right on. Teachers, by and large, will do a very good job with student outcomes if they are not distracted by the athletic pursuits and the priorities imparted through a bloated administration focused on building materialistic legacies. We need to settle in on the idea that education is the focus, and ignore the egos.


Jackson, I love your phrase "bloated administration"! Couldn't say it any better. I wish I knew where Cindy Hill fit into this scheme. I voted for the lady, now the witch hunt continues.


They took all the fun out of school. No one has to learn to do the basics, and they spend to much time on calulators and computers. no one is using their brain power its electricity they use. kids are board out of their ever loven minds. teachers are spending to much time on short cuts and common core politics. boards and commissions are over paid and under educated themselves. where is home economics, health, science, pe, music, job skills training? all the things that make kids dream invent and excell are gone. its a cookie cutter wasted day for many kids. they need the skills asap to do more then facebook, utube and twitter. the kids got no where to go. they can even set at the parking lots like we usto and chat with friends in person, making the contact with real people and not facebook. we areteaching things in histroy that are true, and showing them welfare is better because you get paid for doing nothing anyway. think about what were teaching our kids everyday in school and out.


You are 100% correct housemouse

Dont forget that kids think life is like the Kardashians and MTV reality shows.

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