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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 leah.todd@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.

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