Obama proposal to raise dropout age falls flat

By Shannon Mcfarland

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 16 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

ADVANCE FOR USE SATURDAY, JUNE 16 AND THEREAFTER - In this May 11, 2012 photo, Springfield Southeast High School students are seen in the Principles of Art class in Springfield, Ill. Visual Arts Educator Lisa Long, left, helps students Dylan Walsh, center, and Ryeder Rettwghaus. Days after President Barack Obama called on the states to keep students in schools and raise the dropout age to 18, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn proposed that Illinois should do so. Not everyone met the proposal with Quinn's enthusiasm, saying the state should consider it carefully before pushing up the age.

Seth Perlman, Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — President Barack Obama's call for states to raise the minimum age at which students can drop out of high school seems about as popular as a homework assignment on Friday afternoon.

Since the president urged the change in his State of the Union speech in January, only one state has raised its dropout age to 18, and that won't take effect for five years.

Even legislators in Obama's home state of Illinois wouldn't go along with his proposal, despite an endorsement from the governor. They quickly dumped the issue into the limbo of a special study commission after it became clear there wasn't enough money to support it.

One of the biggest concerns is the cost. If states simply force unwilling students to spend an extra year or two in school, many teens could stay until they are 18 but still leave without a diploma because of poor grades. And extra counseling and remedial courses to help are expensive.

"Where are we going to get the money?" asked state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Chicago Democrat who heads the Illinois Senate's education committee.

Twenty-nine states let students leave school before they turn 18. Obama urged lawmakers to require them to stay in school until graduation or age 18.

"When students aren't allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma," the president said in the speech.

But since then, only Maryland has approved a plan to raise the dropout age, first to 17 in 2015 and then to 18 in 2017.

At least 13 states considered legislation this year to raise the age, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, although the bills weren't necessarily introduced in response to Obama.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear made raising the dropout age a major goal for the last few years but hasn't found enough support among state lawmakers. In Wyoming, there was a short-lived suggestion to raise the age and deny driver's licenses to students who drop out before 18.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn embraced Obama's proposal, immediately calling for legislation, but without proposing additional funding or programs. The measure never made it out of committee, and lawmakers wound up approving a watered-down version that creates a commission to come up with recommendations on the issue by November.

The White House has not made the idea a public priority. Asked for details about the proposal nearly a week after the State of the Union, spokesman Jay Carney said he didn't have any. And the president himself has hardly mentioned it since.

Neither the White House nor the U.S. Department of Education would discuss the slow response to Obama's call for action or address objections raised by critics. White House spokeswoman Caroline Hughes issued a statement saying the president "continues to believe that when students stay in school, they are more likely to succeed in today's economy."

About three out of every 10 students leave high school without a diploma, according to a report from Education Week. Research shows high school dropouts are more likely to spend time in jail, endure unemployment and earn lower wages.

Legislators and education experts welcomed the emphasis on education and the dropout age, but say it's not a simple fix.

"It can't just be 'tie them to their chairs until they are 18.' It has to be giving them a meaningful education," said Lily Eskelsen, an elementary teacher from Utah and the vice president of the National Education Association.

With many students facing disadvantages such as poverty, learning disabilities or weak English skills, the effort to keep them enrolled has to be wide-ranging.

"How do we catch them before they are falling behind? If you don't do all of it as a system, it won't work," Eskelsen said.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere