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Bill would raise Minnesota’s compulsory attendance age to 18

Associated Press

ST. PAUL — Requiring all Minnesota students to stay in school until age 18 would help more graduate from high school to become productive citizens, said supporters of a bill introduced Monday that would raise the state’s compulsory attendance age.

Minnesota is one of several states looking at raising the age from 16 to 18 to reduce the number of high school dropouts.

"Students who drop out are high risk," said Sen. Charles Wiger, Senate Education Committee chairman and bill sponsor. "(Dropping out is) costly to the individual, but it’s also costly to the state in terms of lost productivity."

At its first hearing Monday, officials from the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts spoke in favor of the bill.

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"We should not have a law that gives students a reason to drop out," St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said, telling committee members the story of a fourth grader who had plans to drop out at age 16.

Carstarphen and Wiger cited research by the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education that found that high school dropouts in 2007 cost the state nearly $3.9 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity over their lifetimes.

"More often than not they do not come back," Carstarphen said.

The committee approved the bill and passed it on to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but not before some cautioned about the significance of the change.

"We need to look at the academics and the quality" of programs offered to high school students, said Karen Effrem of the conservative EdWatch advocacy group. "I think we should be very careful before mandating that."

Tom Dooher, president of the teachers’ union Education Minnesota, was skeptical that the bill would help reduce dropout numbers without providing more vocational programs and alternative learning centers to encourage kids to continue their education.

"Does this simplistic approach really address these complex issues?" Dooher asked. "We don’t need any more unfunded mandates to make it look like we’re doing something."

The cost has discouraged some states from passing such laws. In Maryland, lawmakers are trying to decide again whether they want to raise the dropout age to 18 at an estimated cost of $200 million a year. In Florida, lawmakers held back on a similar proposal last year after officials estimated it would cost the state an extra $425 million annually.

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Still, more than a dozen states require students to stay in school until age 18, including California and Texas. New Hampshire and South Dakota last year passed laws to join them.

Without a law, districts have no real incentive to keep high school students in school past age 16, said Ken Seeley, president and CEO of the Colorado-based National Center for School Engagement.

"A lot of kids don’t officially drop out, they just stop coming. And the schools don’t go looking for them," Seeley said.

Seeley said there’s evidence in Illinois that raising the compulsory attendance age to 17 helped reduce the dropout rate.

But other experts are less convinced that changing the law has much to do with outcomes.

"It is trendy. It’s applaudable, but if you don’t put some extra resources in there you’re creating more problems," said Jay Smink, who directs the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University.

Without additional resources, "kids being forced to stay in school when they don’t want to" will only lead to more disruptions and behavior problems, Smink said.

Wiger said he expected his bill would be amended during upcoming committee meetings to address some of the concerns. But he was hopeful that most lawmakers would agree they need to send Minnesota students a message.

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"It’s tough love. You’ve gotta stick it out or you’re entering high risk territory," he said.

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