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Utah to Consider Elimination of 12th Grade

4 years ago
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It's strange to think that the state that served as the backdrop for millenials' most iconic high school imagery would be temped to change the makeup of high school as we know it. In Utah, where the first three installments of Disney's colossal hit "High School Musical" were filmed, Sen. Chris Buttars has proposed a controversial measure to help reduce the state's $700 million deficit: cutting 12th grade from high schools statewide.

Buttars has suggested that his proposal would offer incentives to encourage students to accelerate their education, but his lure may need to be flashier than expected to pry 17-year-olds away from their prized senior year.

According to the Utah Board of Education, the option to graduate early already exists, and about 200 students take advantage of it each year. Support for standardizing Buttars's acceleration program statewide beyond that is hard to find, as many members of Utah's state legislature favor strengthening senior year over cutting it.

"I'm quite involved in the community, and what we're trying to do is get greater rigor in our public education system, not less," Utah state Sen. Patricia Jones (D) said. "That to most people seems to be moving backwards instead of forward."

Although the Utah senator's suggestion has been the most widely-publicized, it is not the first of its kind. Kentucky state Senate Bill 67 offered a similar suggestion this year, proposing to incentivize early graduation by offering each student the $2,500 that the state otherwise pays public high schools per pupil annually. It squeaked past in the state Senate but was defeated in the House -- a fate Buttars's proposal may face when his is finally considered.

After the immediate criticism from schools and parents, the proposal for statewide three-year high school was toned down to a milder, opt-out program, where students can take extra or advanced classes during their first three years of high school to graduate with their required credits a year early.

Buttars has argued that the change could save Utah up to $60 million, but to reach that goal he'll have to entice half of all high school seniors to opt-out, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. With about 150,000 students enrolled in public high schools in the state, bumping participation in the opt-out program from 200 to 19,000 annually would likely require stronger incentives than the state is willing or able to give.

Acceleration and opt-out programs have worked, but not the way Buttars wants to use them. Usually they target either high-achieving or at-risk students, not the general population.

One of the first early-college high schools, Bard High School Early College, a highly-selective public school in New York, was created for high-achieving students who are "ready and eager to do serious college work at age 16." Last year Bard received about 4,000 applications for 135 slots. Approximately two-thirds of the full-time faculty hold Ph.D. degrees in their fields and the district has a 97 percent graduation rate.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Early College High School Initiative has proven that acceleration programs can keep students on a path towards postsecondary education. The initiative, which serves mostly at-risk students, builds programs between high schools and nearby colleges that allow students to earn their high school diploma and complete up to two years of college in five years by starting college classes during their senior year. They've partnered with more than 200 schools nationally, with a high concentration in North Carolina, where only 62 percent of high school students graduate in four years.

One advantage of acceleration options in their current form is that, without a streamlined process, most cases are assessed on an individual basis and acknowledge emotional preparedness as well as academic. Buttars's proposal does just the opposite, simplifying the qualification process without structuring a sufficiently comprehensive support network to evaluate whether high school juniors are capable of shouldering the increased responsibility.

"We don't want to rush students' learning experience," Alexis Holmes, policy analyst in the National Education Association's Department of Education Policy and Practice, said. "There is a reason for allowing students to have the time to naturally mature academically as well as emotionally. . . . To encourage students to leave school in 3 years and provide them with no support, we don't see that as being a successful proposal."

Holmes also expressed concern that colleges and the workforce may be unable to accommodate a sudden influx of applicants, putting students at a grave disadvantage.

Amid statewide efforts by lawmakers to lessen the deficit, Buttars's focus on education spending is particularly surprising since, according to an Editorial Projects in Education analysis, Utah ranked the lowest nationally in per-pupil expenditures, spending $5,964 per student annually (Vermont, the highest-spending state, shelled out nearly $10,000 more per student). Education spending in Utah accounts for 32 percent of the state budget, a percentage on par with the rest of the country.

Accelerating high school can be a great opportunity for high-achieving students, as the small percentage already opting out of senior year in Utah demonstrates, and similar incentive programs have proven successful in bridging the gap between high school and college and combating apathy. But to impose such a controversial policy statewide could hurt a majority of the students who need additional support and time for intellectual and emotional development before entering adulthood.

As of right now, the proposal seems unlikely to take root, with 100 percent of state Democrats' and 80 percent of Republicans' disapproval. But the suggestion has already raised questions in other states about the cost-effectiveness of funding an underutilized year, and Buttars has time to rally support before the bill's introduction next year.

"If it were proposed now it probably has a zero percent chance of passing," Jones said. "But with the Utah legislature, you never know."
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