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Rule changes alone won’t help at-risk students

Say what you will about how the No Child Left Behind Act is being implemented and enforced, but there’s no doubt that the premise is sound: Every kid deserves the chance to succeed in school.

Furthermore, there’s no doubt that one of the fundamental premises of compulsory education is that given a choice, some kids won’t go to school. So, as a society, we’ve rightly decided that 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds can’t be trusted to make life-changing choices about their education. They attend school, or they and their parents can face legal action.

But at age 16 in Minnesota, and in a majority of states across the nation, students can drop out, freeing themselves of the rigors of education to enter a life of low wages, limited opportunities and almost no hope of rising above the circumstances that led them to leave school.

We shouldn’t be OK with that. Parents shouldn’t be OK with that. Teachers and administrators shouldn’t be OK with that.

And we don’t think they are. Rick Stirn, principal at John Marshall High School in Rochester, put it this way: "Kids are like anybody else — they don’t enjoy doing something if they’re struggling to succeed. It’s our job as educators to develop a program that makes them feel successful and motivated. When we do that, dropping out won’t be a major issue."

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Data for the Rochester school district seems to indicate that Stirn is correct: the dropout rate here is just 2.3 percent, and there are a variety of interventions, alternative schools and options available to help keep kids learning. The safety net is extensive and multi-layered, which means that a student who wants to drop out already has to jump through a number of hoops.

Yet a bill introduced Monday in the Minnesota Senate wouldn’t allow students to drop out until they’re 18. The theory is that by removing the option of dropping out at age 16, some kids who would have bailed out on school will stick it out and eventually realize that a diploma opens doors.

"One kid dropping out is one too many," Stirn said in response to this proposal. "If someone can prove to me by data that this change is going to help, then I’m all for it."

The fact is, however, that without addressing the reasons why kids leave school — academic problems, behavioral issues, pregnancy, lack of parental involvement and general boredom, just to name a few — changing the statewide dropout age is a bureaucratic Band-Aid. It’s a feel-good piece of legislation that costs next to nothing and will provide a similar return on investment, like most unfunded mandates.

The obvious solution, of course, is to combine this proposal with interventions that target at-risk student populations long before students turn 16. Such programs aren’t cheap. In Maryland, it’s estimated that raising the dropout age to 18 would cost $200 million per year. In Florida, that cost was estimated at $425 million last year, which was enough to scare lawmakers away from a higher dropout age.

And not all of that money would be spent in what we would call positive ways. Tracking down truant 17-year-olds who have no interest in school would be neither easy nor cheap, and prosecuting their parents would be costly, too. Minnesota’s court system already is underfunded and overbooked, and if the new dropout age were to have any teeth at all, increased enforcement would be needed.

We’re not saying this shouldn’t happen. It probably should, because abandoning the premise that troubled kids are worth saving would start us down a very slippery slope.

But let’s remember that familiar saying about leading a horse to water. If we’re truly serious about keeping every at-risk kid in school, we must find a way to increase their educational thirst. That takes commitment, energy and money.

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Simply forcing them to stand next to the water trough for an extra two years won’t work.

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