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Bill Could Up Mandatory School Attendance Age

House bill proposes raising high school dropout age to 18.

More than one in four South Carolina students fail to graduate high school on-time, but some state legislators introduced a bill that could keep potential dropouts in school longer.

House Bill 4727 would increase the compulsory age for high school attendance to 18 years old. Current South Carolina law allows students to drop out at age 17 without parental permission.

“Everything we can do to encourage attendance is a positive thing,” said Rep. James Smith (D-Richland), one of the bill's sponsors. “My first and foremost interests are in making sure we have the very best educational opportunities for all students.” 

The issue of school age requirements came to the fore in January when President Barack Obama encouraged states to introduce legislation mandating school attendance for children 18 years of age and younger.

Obama repeated his suggestion during a meeting with governors on Monday.

“Twenty-one states have laws where you either have to graduate from high school or stay in school until you’re at least 18,” Obama said. “That means 29 states don’t.

“Let’s send a message to our students that you graduate from high school at a minimum.” 

Kerry Abel, coordinator of dropout prevention for Richland One school district, said under South Carolina's current law, parents don't have a say in whether their children attend school after they turn 17. 

"Moving it to 18 provides some support to parents," Abel said. "Currently the law in South Carolina says students can drop out at 17. You create turmoil in the household between parents and children if they decide to drop out at 17." 

States neighboring South Carolina, including North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, have compulsory attendance until students are 16 or 17. States that require attendance until 18 include Virginia, California, New Hampshire and Texas.

Smith said students who graduated would see the dividends it paid.

“We want to encourage students to stay in school,” Smith said. “The unemployment rate from dropouts to high school graduates to college graduates decreases precipitously.” 

Smith said that increasing high school graduation rates could lead to more money for smaller class sizes and early childhood education, both initiatives Smith also supports.

But Smith said he didn’t expect the bill to make it out of the House of Representatives this year, despite positive feedback from school districts.

“I don’t expect it to pass,” Smith said. “I don’t know that there is even a plan for the committee to take it up.”

Most of the bill’s 16 sponsors are Democrats, but some Republicans, including Gov. Nikki Haley, have called Obama’s push for mandatory schooling until age 18 too idealistic.

“We can’t have government go pick them up and bring them to school,” . “What we can do and what we want to do is South Carolina is give them options.”

Haley suggested GED programs and technical schools as possible other options.

Most of Richland One's dropouts are over-age for their grade and usually quit school between 9th and 10th grade, said Kerry Abel, coordinator of dropout prevention for the district.

The dropout rate for Richland One in 2011 was 3.5 percent, according to the 2011 Annual Report Card from the state. That's down from 5 percent in 2010. 

Columbia High School's dropout rate also decreased from 2010 to 2011. 

Abel credits this decrease in the dropout rate to the district's prevention programs, such as evening high school or credit recovery programs. These programs may better fit the needs of some students, he said.

While one more year of mandatory schooling wouldn't immediately improve districts' scores on the state report cards, Abel said, it would give them more time to work with students. 

"All districts need to offer a variety of services. Traditional schools do not fit all kids in 2012," Abel said. "If you can have an adult going to school in the evening to get their master's, why can't you have a kid going to school in the evening to complete their high school diploma?"

Dropouts, on average, earned $300,000 less during their lifetime than high school graduates, according to the Wall Street Journal, and dropouts represent about $320 billion in lost earning potential every year.

A New York Times article from January also cited lower social costs for high school graduates because they were less likely to take public money for health care or unemployment benefits and more likely to stay out of jail.

With increased earnings potential and decreased likelihood of relying on social welfare, proponents of compulsory education say the one year age difference could add $90 billion a year to the American economy.

Smith said that completing one's education was important in itself, but that he saw the bill as a small step to improving the economy and South Carolina's workforce.

“In dealing specifically with dropouts, they’ve found it’s very, very tough to get back into a position where they can make a living wage,” Smith said. “I know this is not a silver bullet, but this is a parcel of a larger effort that’s got to be made.”

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