President's remarks buoy supporters of raising dropout age

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks during a December campaign event in Washington, D.C.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Minnesota supporters of raising the minimum school dropout age say they're buoyed by the president's mention of the issue.

President Barack Obama called on states in his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening to require students to stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. Minnesota law only requires attendance until 16.

The Education Commission of the States reports 21 states and the District of Columbia have a dropout age of 18.

In his address, Obama said, "We also know that when students don't walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.

State Senator Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, dropped out of high school for a year — even working briefly for a circus — before returning to the Twin Cities to get his diploma. For several years, he has pushed to put Minnesota's dropout age at 18.

"You need to set a message as a state, this is very important. The ramifications are significant," Wiger said. "When our national leader says that, I applauded. So, it refueled my interest in hoping that I can get a hearing on this."

In 2008, Wiger's measure was part of a larger omnibus policy bill that was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

It's a divided issue, with supporters saying students perform better when they're not allowed to drop out, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

"There are some who say that without a high school diploma, your future is really limited in this day and age," Dounay Zinth said. "And then there are other people who say that simply requiring students — making a punitive measure that you're going to go to truancy court if you drop out before age 18 — is meaningless if a student is disengaged and sees no connection to what's going on in the classroom and the real world."

A spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education, Keith Hovis, said the agency doesn't have a formal position on Wiger's legislation but supports any reforms that "make sure high school and school, in general, is relevant in keeping students engaged and supporting them in the most effective way."

State department data indicate Minnesota's four-year graduation rate is 75.9 percent; its dropout rate is 4.9 percent. The remaining students are either listed as "continuing" their education or their status is unknown.

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