In the early 1970s, the attention ot educators, school administrators and elected officials was directed at a growing problem: kids were dropping out. But, as is too often the case, their attention soon was distracted to other matters.

Twelve years later, attention again focused on the dropout crisis. This time, business and community leaders joined in the struggle to keep young people in school. Business and education partnerships were set up to address the problem.

Corporate leaders realized the vested interest they had in keeping kids in school, for it had long been demonstrated that the dropout problem cost American industry millions of dollars in compensatory training, absenteeism and other costs related to an undereducated work force.

Government threw its weight behind the search for solutions. On the federal level, millions of dollars were allocated to projects around the country. In South Carolina, money raised through the Education Improvement Act was given to more than 30 projects designed to keep young people in high school. Then-Gov. Carroll Campbell declared May 6-12, 1990, as "Dropout Prevention Awareness Week."

At the time, the issue of kids dropping out of school seemed important. Apparently, that is no longer the case; as of July 1, all state funding designated for dropout prevention programs ceased.

What happened? Have young people stopped dropping out? Unfortunately, they have not. According to Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, and Frank White of the S.C. Department of Education, one-third of all ninth graders enrolled in the public schools of South Carolina will "delay graduation."

Some may return to school at a later date. Some will go to adult education programs. Some will receive their GED. But many will never return.

In real numbers, according to Smink, that means about 6,000 reported "delays" and about that many more unreported, or a total of about 12,000 dropouts every year.

The state had been funding these programs at a cost of about $8 million, a little more than $650 per child, an investment now apparently too steep for the South Carolina Legislature.

It is ironic that the state would keep a nuclear waste facility open, preach incessantly about family values and then cut all funding for programs designed to keep kids in school.

To paraphrase Warhol, everyone has 15 minutes of fame. The dropout prevention effort is no different. The attention of South Carolinians is as quickly diverted as is the rest of the nation's.

Of course, there are some issues that refuse to die, like the War and that flag. But such is not the case with school dropouts. Funding for, and an interest in, keeping kids in school until graduation has gone with the wind.

According to Linda Shirley of the National Dropout Prevention Center, local teachers involved in dropout prevention in the state are "appalled, disappointed and concerned that what worked is being taken away."

One such program is Project KARE in Anderson School District 5, which has a 95 percent success rate, with a record of keeping more than 550 of the 600 students enrolled in the program in school.

Project GOAL of Richland District 1 was another success. But both of these programs are, as of this month, without state funding and will close down operations. In fact, Smink estimates that up to 75 percent of the state's district dropout prevention programs will not be able to operate.

This reflects a federal trend that has worked its way down to the local school district level. Responsibility is being shifted in several areas. In certain matters that is a wise move, but in the case of dropout prevention it is a grave mistake.

Our economic development, our ability to compete in the world marketplace, are inextricably tied to the education of our children. Billions of dollars in lost productivity, welfare-related costs and compensatory training can be attributed to the very real crisis of school dropouts.

Some 50 years ago, as the world was engrossed in a war that would change the course of history, events in Europe seemed far removed from the mountains of Oconee County, the endless flat fields of Williamsburg County and the streets of Columbia.

Then, having an education was good but not essential. A person with just a few years of formal education could function well on the farm, the assembly line or in the textile mill.

Today, the world is no longer a collection of unrelated peoples. A major paradigm shift is taking place. Bacon's dictum is truer now than any time before in history - knowledge is power.

As Tooler wrote in Power Shift. "The most important economic development of our lifetime has been the rise of a new system for creating wealth, based no longer on muscle but on mind.

"Labor, in the advanced economy no longer consists of working on things' but of people acting on information and information acting on people.'"

The current administration needs to take a hard look at where its values really are. It has always been a safe measure to say that where a state's heart is, there will be its checkbook.

David R. Gillespie is an author, organic farmer and cultural observer living with his daughter, godson, chickens, cats and rabbits somewhere in the wilds between Anderson and Iva.

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© Copyright by POINT, 1995

Last modified 7/9/95