The goal of high school graduation is no longer just about getting a good job or going on to college.
Education and law enforcement officials suggested Thursday that it has become a matter of life and death.
Sheriff Douglas Gillespie and Clark County School District Superintendent Walt Rulffes drew attention to the correlation between violent crime and low graduation rates in a news conference Thursday outside Clark High School.
"This is especially troubling here in Nevada," Gillespie said. "Sadly, we have one of the lowest graduation rates in the country. Correspondingly, our prisons and detention centers are functioning at maximum capacity."
Improving graduation rates by just a little might save lives, Gillespie said. He referred to a 2004 study by University of California, Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti and Canadian economist Lance Lochner, whose research found that a 10 percentage point increase in graduation rates would reduce the murder and assault rate by 20 percent.
In Nevada, such an increase in graduation rates "would prevent approximately 45 murders and 2,000 aggravated assaults each year," Gillespie said.
"Our local dropout rate presents a significant threat to public safety," he said. "It costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year. ... This makes Nevada's graduation rate everyone's concern."
The district's 2007-08 accountability report shows its graduation rate at 63 percent, lagging behind the statewide graduation rate of 67.4 percent.
The district graduation rate declined slightly from 2006-07, when it was 63.5 percent.
Rulffes said graduation ceremonies have become bittersweet for him.
"As much as I enjoy the graduations, I (also) see what represents a major community failing," he said. "And that's thousands of empty seats of students who should be there and who have been lost along the way."
As a solution, speakers on Thursday proposed increasing funding for early childhood education programs, such as Head Start, a federal program that promotes school readiness for children in poverty.
Rulffes said such programs are effective in preparing children for school.
Columbia University researcher Henry Levin, professor of economics and education at the New York University's Teachers College, found that early education is one of the few programs that has been demonstrably proven to improve graduation rates.
Nevada ranks 49th among the states for enrolling children in early education, according to research by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national coalition of prosecutors, law enforcement officers and violent crime survivors.
The only state ranking lower in early education was New Hampshire, which offers no pre-kindergarten programs.
The group thinks that "the most effective way to fight crime is to get out in front of the problem and get kids started on the right track, so they're more likely to be successful in school and life and less likely to move towards crime," said Jeff Kirsch, the vice president.
The group organized Thursday's news conference.
Kirsch, the lead speaker, used a statistic from a study by Editorial Projects in Education, which said Nevada has a graduation rate of 45 percent, making it the lowest in the nation.
District and state Department of Education officials have disputed the study's methodology and have said their research puts Nevada's graduation rate at 60 percent to 65 percent.
Joyce Haldeman, the district's assistant superintendent for communication, said district officials have never said that dropouts are not a problem.
"We just want accurate numbers," she said.
While Thursday's speakers made heavy use of studies that correlated dropouts and crime, Haldeman also acknowledged that it's hard "to prove cause and effect."
By the same token, she said, the school district could not be solely blamed for the graduation rate because so many other factors are at play, such as economics and other societal issues.
Contact reporter James Haug at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-799-2922.