- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Bills to increase the minimum dropout age and provide state funding for students over age 18 have come before the Montana Legislature.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau introduced the bills alongside two Democratic lawmakers Wednesday in the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee.

Senate Bill 14, sponsored by Sen. Robyn Driscoll of Billings, would raise the public school dropout age from 16 to 18.

It attracted more than 20 supporters who argued that Montana’s already declining dropout rate would be further diminished by raising the minimum age.

Montana’s dropout rate has decreased from 5 percent in 2009 to 3.6 percent in 2013, according to data compiled by the Office of Public Instruction. The same data showed that students aged 16 or 17 accounted for 65 percent of the state’s dropouts in 2013.

Steve White, a representative of Montana Coalition of Home Educators, said that in three Midwestern states where the compulsory dropout age was raised, the graduation rate declined. But according to Juneau, those states are outliers in the national trend.

White also argued that a higher dropout age would negatively affect homeschool graduation requirements.

“We are not angling to interfere in any way with home schooling in the existing statutes,” Juneau said, insisting that Senate Bill 14 would not affect homeschooling in Montana.

Senate Bill 12, sponsored by Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe of Great Falls, would transfer to local school boards the authority to decide age limits for attending public school.

Montana is the only state that does not fund the education of students over age 18, Juneau said.

Dave Puyear, a representative of the Montana Rural Education Association, argued that alternative schools already serve students over 18.

Raising the dropout age is expected to cost the state around $900,000 annually. Relinquishing the student age limit to school boards would cost about $240,000 in 2016 and about $350,000 each year following. Gov. Steve Bullock has preemptively included the cost of both bills in his proposed budget.

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