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Funding May Be Biggest Challenge In Slashing Mass. Dropout Rate02:15

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It is one thing for a state panel to say students should stay in school until age 18. It is another thing to find the money to pay for it.

Recommendations made Wednesday by the state's Graduation and Dropout Prevention and Recovery Commission call for raising the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 18, and say there should be more support for struggling students.

What the report doesn’t specify is how much it will cost the state to hang on to 5,000 more student each year, effectively cutting the drop-out rate in half in five years. The commission did suggest reaching out to non-profits and philanthropists to help fund the strategies.

The Boston Re-engagement Center in Roxbury is an example of how a school system is using district funds and a private partnership to help former students go back to the classroom.

Manny Allen mentors kids who have dropped out.

Which is exactly why Tony Ferreira is talking with Allen. After two years of pumping gas, he wants a diploma.

"Cuz I got a job and it's a dead end job," Ferreira says. "The income doesn’t go any higher. It just stays at one point."

The Re-engagement Center runs with money from the district's alternative education program and funds from the Boston Private Industry Council that pay a staff of five who reach out to the 1,800 students who drop out of Boston schools each year. The center opened in August and it has already helped 240 kids go back to school.

Cobbling together funds and running the program out of a community center is not ideal, says director Karen Cowen, but the problem will only get worse if it is not addressed.

"If we don’t fund this now and embrace these children that want to come back and do the right thing — which is what we as adults are always telling them to do — then we'll pay in other ways in the long run, and that's not productive," Cowen says.

Lawmakers agree that the 10,000 people who drop out each year are a drain on the Commonwealth. They are less likely to have a job or health insurance and are more likely to be incarcerated. But the looming question is how to pay for education reform when the state is in the worst fiscal crisis in decades. Republican Senator Richard Tisei says legislators should take a close look at existing resources.

"If there are programs that are being run out of the Department of Education that we look at and don't think are that effective, maybe it's better to channel the money into something that I think everybody would agree on ... that we should try to keep kids in school … until graduation," Tisei says.

Other lawmakers echo this idea of shifting funds to target dropouts. Democratic Rep. Marie St. Fleur is on the commission that wrote the recommendations.

"Like everything else, we need to put it all on the table, figure out what works and what we know doesn't work, based upon the evidence. Move that aside which does not work, because it's not in the best interests of children. Put forward and act on that which does, and spend our money there," St. Fleur says.

But those outside state government are skeptical. Geoffrey Beckwith of the Massachusetts Municipal Association says he understands students who drop out cost the Commonwealth, but in this budget climate cities and towns are already cutting education funding.

"Overall, that means an increase in programming and resources. For example, smaller class sizes, targeted towards potential dropouts. But that's in an environment where local aid has been cut by almost three quarters of a billion dollars and communities are increasing overall class sizes as a result," Beckwith says.

Gov. Deval Patrick is expected to outline more cuts to local aid and other programs next week. That does not bode well for funding to address the dropout crisis. It is a complex problem with solutions that would involve schools, social services and law enforcement, which makes funding especially challenging.

This program aired on October 22, 2009.

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