According to recently-released report from Education Week, the average national high school graduation rate crept up 3.1 percentage points to 68.8 percent from 1997 to 2007. Meanwhile, California’s graduation rate dropped 4.7 percentage points to 62.7 percent. Only Nebraska and Nevada posted larger high-school graduation rate declines.

Research from UC Santa Barbara’s California Dropout Research Project (CDRP) shows that the problem is not limited to California high-schoolers. In 2006-07, nearly 124,000 middle and high-school students dropped out. In fact, California public schools produced one dropout for every three graduates that same year according to CDRP experts. New findings from the U.S. Department of Education offer some hope.

According to the education department’s latest program evaluation released last month, students using D.C. Opportunity Scholarships are more likely to graduate from high school. The program, enacted in 2003, provides scholarships worth up to $7,500 so low-income public-school students can attend local private schools where tuition averages $6,600.

Simply offering students from underperforming D.C. public schools Opportunity Scholarships improved their likelihood of graduating high school 13 percentage points. That likelihood jumped to 20 percentage points among students who used the scholarships (see also here, p. xx). According to University of Arkansas researcher Patrick Wolf, who led the U.S. Department of Education evaluation team:

These results are important…because high school graduation is strongly associated with a large number of important life outcomes such as lifetime earnings, longevity, avoiding prison and out-of-wedlock births, and marital stability. …The Obama administration has, quite correctly, made increasing high school graduation rates a top education priority, especially for disadvantaged students…Fortunately, we now know of an initiative that has done exactly that-the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Improving education outcomes for all students-regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds-begins by giving them a chance to escape failing schools for ones that best meet their unique, individual needs. Currently, almost 3,000 out of 10,000 California public schools are not performing and have been identified for Program Improvement. Policy makers should continue supporting efforts that have shown progress at turning failing schools around; however, no parent should be expected to sacrifice their children to schools that are sub-par. To improve graduation rates tomorrow, California policy makers need to give students more choices today.

[Note: Longer versions of this blog appeared as a Pacific Research Institute Capital Ideas column and a Daily Caller op-ed.]