Probst’s dropout prevention bill passes

If cash is available, it will reward graduation rates

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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A bill that would give cash awards to Washington schools and school districts that reduce their student dropout rates is headed for Gov. Chris Gregoire’s desk.

House Bill 1599, the Pay for Actual Student Success Act, passed the Senate in the last hours of the legislative session Friday on a bipartisan vote of 40-6 after passing the House earlier. Sponsored by state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, it aims to improve high school graduation rates by using proven strategies that have measurably reduced the dropout rate in Washington schools.

The bill provides that if funds are appropriated in the budget to implement the cash grants, they would be awarded beginning with the 2011-12 school year. The House budget includes $6.4 million to launch the program and provide awards for two consecutive years.

“For that amount of money you can dramatically reduce the dropout rate across the state,” Probst said.

The Senate budget does not fund the program, so its fate will be decided in the Legislature’s special session, beginning today, when differences between the two budgets are reconciled.

However, “There’s already an implementation team being led by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction,” Probst said. “They are getting all the T’s crossed and I’s dotted so if and when it’s funded, we’ll be ready to go.”

According to the Office of Financial Management, as many as 340 high schools around the state might qualify for awards ranging from $10,000 to $50,000, depending on their success in reducing dropout rates. Individual schools would pocket 90 percent of the cash bonuses, with 10 percent going to their school districts.

If funded, the program would be the first to use a pay-for-outcomes system in Washington’s high schools.

For the past five years, Washington’s overall high school graduation rate — for students who finish on time and those who take longer than four years to graduate — has hovered at between 79 percent and 75 percent.

“Building a stronger economy and a better society for everyone means addressing the fact that 20 percent to 25 percent of our students drop out before completing high school,” Probst said.

Under the legislation, high schools would be encouraged to offer programs that connect local businesses with classrooms, use adult mentors, provide college scholarships, and intervene early to help students who are at high risk of dropping out of school.

Studies have shown that taxpayers save $10,500 annually for each student who avoids dropping out, Probst said, and those savings continue for the life of that student.

“Left unchecked, the state budget will almost certainly cause our high school dropout rate to go up,” he said. “That’s unacceptable to me. I think it’s a state fiscal imperative, a moral imperative, and an economic imperative to get our graduation rates up.”