Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: The insidious little lie about dropouts, part 2

I'VE WRITTEN several times that the strategy of those being paid to try to divert tax dollars to private schools is not just to run down our public schools but to exaggerate or even lie about their shortcomings. It doesn't matter how many times I and others correct their misstatements; they are fully aware of the truth to the cliche: Tell a lie often enough, and people begin to believe it.

Today I present Exhibit A of the cliche in action: me.

Last week, I wrote that Attorney General Henry McMaster was wrong when he said that half of S.C. students drop out of school in 10th grade. So far so good.

But then I pulled up short, saying that "half" refers to the students who do not graduate in four years. In fact, that's not right either: Some of the dozen or so different methods to calculate that number did yield figures around 50 percent a few years ago. But those methods have been discarded as a consensus has formed around one or two of the dozen ways of deriving the number, and besides, our state has made dramatic (though insufficient) improvement since then.

This isn't simply a matter of my not being tough enough on a candidate, and in fact I doubt that Mr. McMaster meant to deceive. Rather, it is a pretty dramatic example of how effective the leaders of the anti-public school movement have been at brainwashing our entire state.

I don't want to overstate my own importance, but the fact is that I am someone whose job it is to make sure that I know and convey the truth on (among other things) this very issue, who has in fact written as recently as this summer about the latest numbers that refute the dropout-rate lie. If I am susceptible enough to the distortion campaign to write "Actually, that 'half' figure represents students who do not graduate in four years," then how in the world can people who don't do this for a living be expected to hold up against the onslaught?

How can candidates who are inclined to agree with the political goals of the repeat-a-lie gang be expected to resist the brainwashing? As one education official put it: "I don't think Henry's much different from other South Carolinians.... Voucher lobbyists have the money and resources to continuously pump out misleading information, and at some point, their inaccurate statements become accepted by some folks as factual. One of their constant refrains over the years has been that 'half of South Carolina students don't graduate.'"

Actually, there is hope. The anti-public school movement's litany used to claim that South Carolina is dead last in education. That's simply not true, and it hasn't been for at least a decade, if ever: Our scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress - the one test universally acknowledged to be an accurate measure for all the states - are lurching toward the national average; our improvement on that test, the SAT and drop-out rates are among the best in the nation. (A report released this summer showed that we led the nation in improvement in on-time graduation rates over the past decade, jumping a remarkable 13 percentage points and 13 places in our ranking, to 37th.)

And years of persistent truth-telling finally forced the critics to back off their claim and instead confine their criticism to graduation rates and SAT scores. (Of course many in the public still believe the "last in education" myth, but that misperception should eventually fade away as the claim is no longer routinely tossed about.)

The truth is likewise our best weapon against the dropout-rate lie. So here's the truth:

South Carolina's 2008 on-time high school graduation rate was 74.9 percent. Which, for those of you who like playing around with percentages like our governor does, is 50 percent better than the "half drop out" claim.

This figure is not derived from some contrived methodology that was designed to make South Carolina look good. It comes from using the methodology that President Bush's secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, ordered all states to start using as part of the meddlesome No Child Left Behind law. This methodology - whose adoption has been the main reason the other methodologies have faded away - was endorsed by all 50 governors, including our own Mark Sanford.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you how we stack up against the rest of the nation, because Ms. Spellings just issued her order last fall, when South Carolina was one of only 15 states using this methodology. The other states have until the 2010-11 school year to comply, and they have not yet done so, but among those 15 states, South Carolina ranks 11th.

A couple of other numbers:

- The most recent U.S. Census reported that 76 percent of South Carolinians older than 25 had a high school diploma; the national average is 80 percent. (This is by no means a perfect indicator, as it includes people who moved here as adults; it is one indicator that helps complete the picture.)

- The annual "Diplomas Count" report by Education Week, a widely respected weekly magazine, put South Carolina's on-time graduation rate at 66.3 percent for 2006, the most recent year it has calculated. That's a third higher than the 50 percent claim.

Unacceptable? Absolutely. Dead last - as the propaganda goes? Absolutely not.