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Letting High Schoolers Voluntarily Graduate Early Would Benefit Them And Taxpayers


June 01, 2008

With real estate values declining in the wake of the sub-prime crisis and school budgets continuing to put upward pressure on local property taxes, it should come as no surprise that even affluent towns, including Avon, Farmington, Stonington and Redding, are rejecting proposed budgets, many by wide margins.

It's simple math. The Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky estimates that every $200 increase in tax on a home reduces its resale value by between $1,200 and $1,800.

Perhaps it is time for lawmakers to consider a remedy first proposed by Bard College President Leon Botstein in his 1997 book "Jefferson's Children": encourage high school students to voluntarily graduate in three years, a policy that could ultimately save property owners billions in taxes.

Botstein's original case for early graduation was based on academic and social concerns, not fiscal issues. With a rigid structure inherited from the 1830s, he argued that the "traditional high school is an out-of-date strategy and system" that accommodates neither fast nor slow learners, leads to boredom and even delinquency, ignores the relative physiological maturity of modern adolescents and fails to take advantage of new learning technologies.

But today we can add to Botstein's list of reasons the tax savings that could flow from providing high school students with incentives to voluntarily graduate early. Consider:

With per-pupil costs for high school ranging from a low of $9,000 in distressed cities like Bridgeport to nearly $18,000 in wealthier suburbs, the Yankee Institute did a study in 2007 ("Free College for High School Students," available at www.yankeeinstitute.org) showing how much each Connecticut town could save by paying its students to graduate in three years.

Using the latest available census and per-pupil expenditure data from the Connecticut Department of Education, the Institute found that if just 25 percent of all the state's secondary students received a full, two-year community college scholarship (or $5,000 cash equivalent) for finishing high school early, more than $58 million would be left over annually to reduce property taxes.

Like most other states, Connecticut sets high school graduation requirements in terms of courses met, not years attended, and towns as diverse as Middletown, West Hartford and Westport already have written policies on early graduation, although none yet offer an incentive.

Elsewhere, a number of states have begun to eliminate the senior year of high school by setting up so-called "dual enrollment" programs. In Washington, for example, high school juniors and seniors have the right to take courses at any of the state's 33 community colleges.

North Carolina's Learn and Earn program takes the Washington model one step further, allowing students to mix public school, community college and online courses to obtain both a high school diploma and an associate's degree in five years.

In Florida, where more than 30,000 high school juniors and seniors get credit for college courses, school boards are required to inform students of the state's dual-enrollment option. And even courses taken at colleges and universities during the summer can count toward a high school degree.

Unfortunately, the political price for enacting most dual-enrollment programs has been the creation of a redundant payment system. Municipalities still include money in their high school budgets to pay for the places of students who have skipped their senior year and gone to college with the funding provided by taxpayers. For property taxpayers to benefit, the school budget must reflect the reduced cost when a student has either graduated early or, if still technically enrolled in high school while taking a full college course load, is no longer receiving district services. A school will not realize any saving until a large enough number of students skip senior year to allow for a reduction in classes.

True, some school districts might initially resist rewarding early graduation because of the state's Education Cost Sharing program, which supplements education budgets in distressed cities on a per student basis. The fear would be that graduating a substantial numbers of students early could mean a loss of revenue from the state. Prosperous towns get little ECS money, but might worry about damaging popular athletic programs, if some students left after three years.

In fact, Connecticut education statutes give school boards considerable flexibility in offering credit for outside learning. A senior could theoretically move on to the first year of college while remaining technically enrolled in high school at no instructional cost and even participate in sports programs much the way home-schooled students are currently entitled to participate.

While the national education debate focuses on such contentious issues as vouchers and national testing standards, a simple policy of incentivizing Connecticut high school students to effectively graduate early could expand educational opportunity, combat classroom boredom and help the most disadvantaged afford at least two years of college all the while providing tax relief to hard-pressed homeowners.

Lewis M. Andrews is the executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy in Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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