ANNAPOLIS — The House passed a bill Thursday that would raise the mandatory school attendance age, a proposal that could benefit at-risk teens but also could increase costs for the state.
Members voted 88-49 in favor of the legislation, which would raise the age at which children can quit school from 16 to 17 in 2014, then to 18 in 2016.
The Senate passed a similar version of the bill last month, and the chambers will have to resolve any differences.
"We have a constitutional mandate to educate our children," said Delegate Aisha N. Braveboy, Prince George's Democrat and the bill's lead House sponsor. "That commitment doesn't end at 15 or when they turn 16. It ends when they become an adult — and that's at 18."
Supporters argue that the current law allowing 16-year-olds to drop out is a relic from decades past, when a high school diploma was less necessary for finding work.
Maryland law requires children ages 5 to 15 to attend public school or receive "regular, thorough instruction" in another setting, such as private or home school. Parents with children in violation can be charged with a misdemeanor.
The state estimates that an average of 9,500 students a year have dropped out of its public schools over the past decade, with the vast majority coming from Prince George's and Baltimore counties and the city of Baltimore.
Prince George's has the state's highest dropout rate, followed by Wicomico and Somerset counties on the Eastern Shore.
The bill would require most students to stay in school longer but would allow exemptions in various circumstances, such as for teens who are married, working to support their families or are pursuing a GED certificate.
Despite its predicted merits, supporters acknowledge the bill would cause state and local spending to rise, as it would increase enrollment and require governments to raise education funding proportionately.
State analysts estimate the bill will lead to $35 million in additional state spending during its first year, rising to $54 million extra when the dropout age goes up to 18.
House members voted mostly along party lines on the bill, with Republicans raising questions over its price tag and arguing it simply will keep disruptive, truant or otherwise unwilling students in school without aiding their education or maturity.
"I don't think we're going to have anything to show for it except an enrollment count," said Delegate Herbert H. McMillan, Anne Arundel Republican. "There's no guarantee that there will be a student in the seat that is being counted."
Democrats argued that the bill is worth its cost and could save some students from many problems associated with dropping out of school, such as bleak job prospects, increased chances of incarceration and shorter life spans.
"It sends a message to every single child in Maryland," said Delegate Eric G. Luedtke, Montgomery Democrat and middle school teacher. "We won't give up on them, and if they are willing to try, this state will do everything in our power to help them succeed."
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