Paul Koehler on Mayors and the High School Graduation Imperative

Staff Awards photo of Paul Koehler

This post was written by Paul Koehler, Director of the Policy Center at WestEd. The article first appeared on June 21, 2018 at GOVERNING.

Across the country, mayors work to improve the economic health of their cities and encourage growth and stability for their communities and their residents. These efforts often include tax breaks for corporations, revitalizing neighborhoods through partnerships with redevelopment agencies, and grants and other initiatives to improve access to safe, affordable housing.

And while these are all very important areas for any municipal leader to address, we should not overlook one that is not always viewed at first glance as in the purview of mayors: education. More specifically, it is critical to focus on helping young people to not only graduate from high school but to do so on time — that is, in four years.

A look at recent data from one state illustrates what’s at stake for communities. In April, the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable, an initiative of the national nonprofit education research agency WestEd and the Helios Education Foundation, released Arizona Mayors Education Dashboards: The Economic Effects of High School Non-Completion and Disconnected Youth, a report which uses high school non­completion and youth­disconnection rates to calculate the potential economic loss to the state. The report draws on input from each of the Roundtable’s 15 mayors as well as data from the Arizona Department of Education and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The report found that each young person who does not complete high school on time represents a potential estimated lifetime economic loss of $498,920 for Arizona. This is due to a combination of effects including lost earnings, higher rates of criminal activity, increased reliance on government assistance, poorer health outcomes, and lost productivity — all factors that negatively impact the health of our cities. Based on the state’s 18,460 non­completers in the class of 2015, the total estimated loss to the state would exceed $9.2 billion.

Disconnected youth — those between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor working — also have a stark economic impact on their communities, with each of them representing an estimated lifetime loss to the state of $765,600. In 2015, there were 830,000 people in this age group in Arizona, and data suggest that 125,850 of them, or 15 percent, were disconnected. For the state, that works out to a loss of $96.4 billion to its economy. To put that number into perspective, consider this: Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year is $10.1 billion. This means the estimated lifetime economic loss to the state due to its nearly 126,000 disconnected youth is nine and a half times that of the state’s annual budget.

While these numbers are startling, mayors in Arizona and elsewhere have the opportunity to exert a meaningful impact on them in three key ways: by embracing their role in improving local education systems; working with school leaders to address barriers to young people graduating and finding work; and creating partnerships with local businesses to ensure that young people are prepared for and connecting with local businesses and employers.

On the first point, while mayors may have no direct powers over the schools in their cities, they still have a critical role in improving them. Mayors can and should prioritize policies that support local educators and school systems. This may also include tapping into a wealth of community assets, such as businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government services that support children and youth.

Second, municipal leaders need to work closely with school district leaders to identify and reduce barriers to young people graduating from high school on time and joining the local workforce. Creating pathways for career and technical education, developing summer job programs and supporting resources such as tutoring, academic and mental health counseling, and child care can all make it easier for students to complete school on time and engage in college- and career­readiness opportunities.

Finally, mayors can work with local businesses to ensure that workforce development is a two­way street. Schools should be able to consult with employers to ensure that young people are learning workforce skills that those employers are looking for, particularly for high­demand, well­paying jobs. Mayors can also encourage the business community to create training programs that provide direct links to local youth while filling workforce and job­training needs.

A key ingredient in a city’s health is a strong education system that is designed to support both young people and the local economy. When students receive the resources and supports they need to graduate on time and engage in the workforce, cities and their residents are able to thrive.

Watch an interview with Paul Koehler about the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable.


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