Obama proposal to raise dropout age falls flat

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama gave the State of the Union address in Washington on Jan. 24, 2012. During the speech, he urged states to raise the minimum school dropout age, but only one state, Maryland, has done so.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

By SHANNON MCFARLAND, Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) -- 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.

Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky 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.

Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois 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.

In Maryland, the state expects to spend $35 million more on education when the age rises to 17 and $54 million more when the age reaches 18 in 2017.

Proponents argued the state will save money in the long run by having a better-educated workforce that will pay more taxes.

Aisha Braveboy, a Democratic delegate who sponsored the measure, also noted that people without a high school diploma are eight times more likely to end up in the state's criminal justice system.

"From a financial perspective, it makes absolute sense to invest in education instead of incarceration," Braveboy said.

In Illinois, Democratic state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia sponsored the House legislation to raise the dropout age but now says it was the wrong move.

While calling the Democratic governor a good "team player" for backing the president's proposal, she said raising the age is not realistic considering the state's budget cuts. This week, lawmakers voted to cut $495 million from education, 3.9 percent of the state's funding for schools.

The governor still supports raising the dropout age, spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said.

More than 18,000 Illinois high school students dropped out in the 2010-11 school year, out of a total of 636,000 students. Legislative staff said they could not reliably estimate the cost to the state if those students were kept in school until 18.

But one group has taken a stab at calculating the cost of allowing those students to drop out. The Chicago-based Alternative Schools Network estimates that each dropout costs Illinois a net lifetime average of about $70,000, while high school graduates contribute a net amount of about $236,000.

For some Illinois lawmakers, the idea of raising the dropout age isn't even worth sending to a commission for study. Sen. David Luechtefeld, a former teacher and high school coach, said he's never talked to a school administrator who thinks raising the age is a good idea.

"Most of the time," Luechtefeld said, "a kid who doesn't want to be in school is a problem for the kids who want to be there."