One of the criticisms you'll often hear of Georgia is the low percentage of students who stay the course in high school and graduate with a diploma.
Independent estimates from such outside organizations as the Southern Regional Education Board put the state's high school graduation rate at 65 percent or lower, which should be distressing to anyone who's concerned about Georgia's future prosperity.
Fortunately, we have some smart people serving in the General Assembly who have put a lot of thought into this question and come up with a solution: We can improve the high school graduation rate by lowering educational standards and making it easier for students to get a diploma.
Brilliant idea! Why didn't I think of that?
Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, who's in the real estate business in Henry County, introduced legislation last year that would move the state toward this goal. Davis' bill, known as HB 215, would require the Department of Education to provide alternative diplomas for students to choose as they enter the ninth grade: a college preparation diploma with course requirements similar to what we have now and a career/vocational/technical diploma that would require fewer courses than for a college prep diploma.
Davis' bill would also create a "general diploma" that students could choose. This would only require you to pass 18 classroom credits, as opposed to 23 for a college prep diploma. Students would not have to be bothered with taking so many of those boring courses in math, science and English. Best of all, students would only have to attend high school for three years rather than four to graduate.
If you make it easier for a teenager to get a diploma by taking fewer courses and only going to school for three years, you're obviously going to have more kids graduating. Whether they will graduate with a level of knowledge that enables them to get a job making more than the minimum wage is another matter entirely.
Davis insisted he is not trying to "dumb down the system or anything to that effect," but he acknowledged that one of his goals is to try to improve the state's graduation rate.
In Davis' opinion, all this talk about the importance of going to college is really a little bit elitist.
"You cannot have an army with nothing but generals," he said. "You have to have cooks, drivers, infantrymen, people like that. I don't think you're less of a person if you don't go to college."
Davis said his bill helps in another problem area: the low SAT exam scores that consistently rank Georgia in the bottom 10 percent of the states. He theorized that if more students chose to pursue a general diploma, you would not have as many low-performing teenagers taking the SAT exam, which means the average test score would probably increase.
HB 215 is being seriously considered by a legislative committee that began holding hearings on it last week. There was some pushback at that hearing from education officials, especially those who have been trying to make the state's graduation requirements more rigorous so that students are better prepared for life after getting out of high school.
"This is not about trying to send every child through a one-size-fits all college track diploma," said Brad Bryant, the interim state school superintendent. "We want to make sure there's a baseline knowledge."
Bryant said the "unified" diploma currently offered to high school graduates has numerous options besides college prep that students can choose. "In the current graduation rule, there is the ability to do what you want to accomplish," he told legislators.
Martha Reichrath, an assistant state superintendent, said representatives of the armed services have often told the Department of Education "to keep our core standards rigorous" so that students with a high school diploma will still be able to qualify for the military.
Who knows? Maybe Davis is right but maybe he isn't going far enough. Let's go ahead and pass a bill that would confer a high school diploma on every student who finishes the eighth grade. That would give Georgia a graduation rate close to 100 percent and make us the envy of every other state in the nation.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.