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Published: Friday, 6/8/2007

Already reeling, dropout rate adds to Michigan's woes

LANSING, Mich. - There's no denying that this has been a terrible year for Michigan. The state is leading the nation in unemployment; the domestic auto industry is in deep crisis, and the state's politicians seem to do nothing except fight over the budget.

And now comes another slug of unwelcome news. New figures show Michigan is leading the Midwest in something besides unemployment: High school dropouts.

A new report by the Washington-D.C. based nonpartisan Alliance for Excellent Education shows that not only does Michigan have the highest dropout rate, the number of dropouts is actually increasing. This, at a time when it is increasingly impossible for anyone without some higher education to land a decent job.

Michigan also has the largest racial disparity in graduation rates. Exact figures are hard to come by, because some school data are incomplete or suspect. But the Alliance estimated that 75 percent of white Michigan students graduate from high school, while only 32 percent of black students do.

Mike Flanagan, the state superintendent of schools, did not dispute those figures. "In fact, indications are that about 75 percent of African-American males fail to graduate from high school," he said.

Why the enormous racial disparity? "I think they don't see anything that gives them hope," he said. "I don't think many of them see a correlation between doing well in school and a future job."

Does Michigan have programs for this vast and growing underclass? "Not enough," he said candidly. Doing more is not even on the table, given the current budget crisis.

Currently, the best estimates are that about 45,700 Michigan students fail to receive their diplomas every year. (Ohio, which is slightly larger in population, has about 36,800 dropouts,)

Today, there are no jobs on the assembly line that dropouts can get. Mostly, they are even ineligible to join the military, except when the services are having trouble meeting their quotas.

Asked what happens to these tens of thousands of kids without prospects, Mr. Flanagan responded grimly that many undoubtedly were contributing to Michigan's swelling prison population.

What happens next year could conceivably make the problem worse before it gets better. Michigan's tough new high school graduation standards kick in, forcing all students to take a more rigorous curriculum, with more math and science.

Might this not drive the dropout rate even higher? Mr. Flanagan says he doesn't think so. "I'm an optimist."

"If you show them why they need to learn this stuff, they can get it. I think virtually every kid can learn algebra if it is properly explained." (Mr. Flanagan may be right in principle, but on that point, he may be dead wrong, at least when it comes to journalists, including me.)

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LATEST on the Budget Wars: Gov. Jennifer Granholm startled lawmakers at the conclusion of the Mackinac Conference a week ago with a new, concrete proposal to balance the next year's budget:

She would return the state income tax rate, now 3.9 percent, to the 4.4 percent it was before all the tax cuts that began in 1999.

What was perhaps most significant is that Republicans, including State Sen. Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R., Rochester) did not immediately denounce that idea.

The GOP leadership is widely believed to quietly have agreed not to block some form of tax increase for the 2008 budget in return for no new taxes in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Earlier in the year, the governor had proposed an extension of the state sales tax to services, an idea that went nowhere. But the budget for the next fiscal year starts off with a projected $1.6 billion deficit, and there is simply no place to save that much money.

Speaker of the House Andy Dillon (D., Redford) whose support will be key to any budget deal, said he thought the final agreement would include some increase in the income tax, though perhaps not to the full 4.4 percent rate the governor wants. But that would also be supplemented by extending Michigan's 6 percent sales tax to some "discretionary" services, "purchases it is possible to avoid."

The tax increase might be written in a way that the rate would decrease again if the economy improved, Mr. Dillon said. Asked if he felt confident that the two or three necessary Republican votes in the Senate could be found to pass a tax increase, he said, simply, "yes."

He also said both parties were "reasonably close" to agreeing on a replacement for the Single Business Tax, which expires Dec. 31.

"We're hoping to write a plan that encourages businesses to expand and move to Michigan," he said. Republicans have dropped their earlier insistence on a tax cut, and now agree the new tax has to generate as much total revenue ($1.9 billion a year) as the old one.



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