Tuesday, February 12, 2008

BALTIMORE (AP) — Maryland could sharply reduce high-school dropout rates by requiring students to remain in school until they turn 18, according to a new report.

State law allows students to drop out of school at 16 with parental permission, a holdover from the era in which 16-year-olds could get factory or agricultural jobs without a high school diploma.

However, efforts to change the law have been unsuccessful in the General Assembly for the past four years largely because such a change would be too expensive.

The yearlong report — prepared by a statewide task force of 50 educators, lawmakers and community leaders — recommended the change but cautions that it would not be cheap. It concluded that raising the dropout age to 18 would cost about $200 million a year and exacerbate shortages of classroom space and teachers.

According to the report, keeping students in school until 18 would flood schools with 21,000 more students, and school systems would have to hire 1,100 more teachers, a daunting task in a state with an acute teacher shortage.

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, Baltimore Democrat, is sponsoring a bill to raise the attendance age. Baltimore lawmakers have pushed the bill unsuccessfully in previous sessions.

“It”s always died because of the cost factor, and I don”t get that,” Miss Pugh said. “When these children start school at 5, we ought to be prepared for them to stay in school until 18.”

Miss Pugh thinks the study has given momentum to the effort to raise the compulsory-attendance age.

More than 10,000 students dropped out of Maryland schools last year.

Miss Pugh spent last week pushing her bill to members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Some committee members said they were encouraged to learn that 27 states and the District have pushed up the mandatory age to 17 or 18.

But state Sen. James Carew Rosapepe, Prince George”s Democrat, said he was disappointed that few other states could prove that raising the age directly contributed to lower dropout rates.

The report states that dropout rates could be lowered with a combination of efforts. Interventions in Maryland have included creating alternative settings with smaller student-teacher ratios and steering at-risk students into mentoring programs.

Task force Chairman Ranjit S. Dhindsa said just keeping students in school two years longer will not solve the problem.

“It”s not so simple as to say, ‘Let”s make an age change,” ” Mr. Dhindsa said.

Miss Pugh also has submitted a bill that would eliminate the requirement that students drop out before pursuing a general-equivalency diploma (GED).

“Students need different paths to graduate sometimes,” she said. “I don”t see why students have to drop out of school before they take the GED. They don”t need that blemish on their record.”

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