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Strengthening America's Educational Safety Net

November 20, 2017
By Carl L. Brodt and Alan Bonsteel

All students have unique skills, face unique challenges, and have unique needs. For many students, such needs are not met in standard government school classrooms and settings. These students are often described generally as "at-risk."

People holding hands to form a net in the middle.

Across the United States, some 1.5 million high school students—10 percent of students that age—will enter a “safety net” program to help them navigate their high school education in ways a traditional classroom setting cannot. The educational safety net includes programs in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers; stand-alone continuation and alternative schools; and programs operating within traditional schools. Students in these alternative education settings are more likely to be minority and low-income than students in traditional classroom settings.

In this Policy Brief, authors Carl Brodt and Alan Bonsteel, M.D. warn the educational safety net in the United States is failing too many students. They note:

Traditional government schools have many serious problems, but at least some oases exist in the system in which students can excel. By contrast, the safety net designed to help at-risk students complete high school and move on to economically successful lives is failing most of them.

Brodt and Bonsteel discuss how the performance of safety net programs can be assessed, consider the costs of such programs, and describe how the programs are held accountable for results. Because the safety net currently fails most of its students, they offer recommendations for improvement, concluding

If we are willing to act boldly to implement the recommendations described above, we can transform and revolutionize how we work with children who are floundering in school. Over the next two decades we could empty many of our prisons of young people who have been poorly served by our dysfunctional educational safety net.

This Policy Brief draws details primarily, though not exclusively, from the well-documented California experience. It is organized in seven parts:

Part 1: Defining at-risk populations and safety net elements.
Part 2: Demographics.
Part 3: Entry into the safety net.
Part 4: Practices and results.
Part 5: Assessing results.
Part 6: Costs and accountability.
Part 7: Recommendations.

In the all-important Recommendations section, the action items are:

  • Standardize data, collect information, and define the knowledge requirements for graduation.
  • Expand independent school options.
  • Expand parental choice, which includes choice within the safety net, vouchers, education saving accounts, and tax-credit scholarships.
  • Reduce the need for a safety net.