Mandating school until 18 has pitfalls

Half of states already do, but Obama call rankles some educators, lawmakers

Long before President Obama’s call on Tuesday night for all students to remain in school until they turn 18, almost half of the nation’s jurisdictions already had instituted such policies, and several more are taking up the issue this year.

In fact, some specialists worry that by jumping on the bandwagon during his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama may give some states second thoughts.

“States don’t like to have the feds tell them what to do. There may be some significant pushback if the feds come and say you have to do this,” said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, an advocacy group that tracks state and national school issues.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia currently require students to stay in school until they graduate or hit their 18th birthday. Another 11, including Mr. Obama’s home state of Illinois, mandate schooling until age 17. The rest allow students to drop out at 16.

Lawmakers in at least two states, Kentucky and Delaware, are pushing legislation to up their compulsory school age from 16 to 18. In most cases, the lower standards were established decades ago, such as Kentucky’s law, which was put in place in 1934.

“Surely we can all agree that the world has changed in the last 78 years,” Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, told legislators during his State of the Commonwealth address earlier this month.

Mr. Beshear is an outspoken supporter of raising his state’s mandatory school age, but there remains disagreement in the education arena about whether such measures do any good.

Critics of Kentucky’s proposal cite the possibility of older, disruptive students who come to class only because they’re forced to. Others remain concerned that thousands of taxpayer dollars would be wasted on students who have mentally checked out.

“We have to understand that keeping these kids in school until they are 18 should involve more than just ‘doing time.’ They would need a whole host of services, both academic, social and emotional,” said Kristen Stephens, an assistant professor of education at Duke University.

Data also show that the compulsory school age has little to do with a state’s high school graduation numbers. Of the 14 states with the lowest dropout rates, only five require that all students stay in school until they turn 18, according to a 2009 study by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, a Massachusetts-based think tank.

North Dakota, which allows children to drop out at 16, had a dropout rate of 1.9 percent, the lowest of all states, the report said.

While virtually no one advocates that students quit school, state laws requiring them to be there for an extra year or two are unlikely to solve the dropout problem, analysts say.

“Just forcing a student to have his butt in the seat until age 18 isn’t going to help if that student is completely disengaged,” Ms. Dounay Zinth said.

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