A bill before the Education and Cultural Resource Committee would increase the legal dropout age from 16 to 18.
Proponents, including State Superintendent Denise Juneau, say the change will set a state expectation that all Montana students will graduate, which in today’s economy is imperative for a good job and a secure future.
Opponents say that the bill doesn’t fix the cause of the problem. They argue that attempting to force students to stay in school when they don’t want to be there will take away from the students who do. Furthermore, critics argue, it simply wouldn’t work because students can’t be forced to attend.
Sen. Taylor Brown, R- Huntley, is carrying the bill. He said current law does not adequately prepare today’s young people for a successful future. The dropout age of 16 may have been all right when enacted in 1921, he added, but it isn’t in 2011.
Taylor says the bill, including a drafted amendment, would not affect the home schooling community or home-schoolers’ ability to finish early. The amendment would require home-schooled students to report at 16 for the last year.
“I brought the bill because I’m concerned about the high school dropout rate,” Brown said. “The goal is to raise expectations for parents, teachers, students and the community.”
He noted that he is not a fan of expanding government, but rather is thinking about students who don’t have families at home setting high expectations for their children.
Helena Superintendent Bruce Messinger spoke in favor of the bill saying it will lead districts to find new and innovative practices to engage students in their learning, motivate them to success and graduate.
Karen Sullivan, a Butte mother of two high school students, encouraged the committee to support the bill.
“This would keep our young folks where they belong — in environments of learning, preparation and engagement,” she said.
Cathy Burwell, president of the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce, said it will build a stronger and well-prepared workforce for the business community.
Many of those in opposition were from the home-schooling community around the state.
“This will not improve the graduation rate,” said Steve White with the Montana Coalition of Home Educators. He said students should stay in school, but they should also understand the value and have involved parents.
White, of Bozeman, said the passage of SB 44 will undermine a home- or private-school parent’s right to direct their decisions for the instruction of their children. He pointed out that the two states with the highest graduation rates — New Jersey at 84.5 percent and North Dakota at 83.1 percent — have a compulsory age of 16.
The fiscal note for the bill is about $1 million, which White says, represents an expansion of government, and more spending with less results.
Retired educator Barbara Rush said increasing the age will not keep students in school.
“We can try all kinds of policing activities, but in the end, if they don’t want to come, they simply won’t,” she said.
Opponent Jonathan Barbagello said the bill would simply treat the symptom and not the problem.
“This bill is based on the flawed assumption that the children who drop out are the problem,” he said. “We need to fix the system. The system is the problem, not the children.”
Anaconda High School student Teryn Green said more than 20 percent of her graduating class has dropped out, and most tell her it’s because they don’t care.
“Expectations should be raised in one’s self and one’s home, not by the government,” she said.
Ten-year-old Matt Tuma from Cut Bank said there are simply better things to do with $1 million.
Home-schooled student Georgia Lindgren, of Helena, gave this analogy.
“If you have a tree with a leaf problem you don’t try to fix the leaves, you go to the root,” she said.
Brown closed in saying he never saw the money as a big issue during his drafting and editing process.
“It’s ludicrous,” he said. “It’s like saying we want to save money, so we want more kids to drop out.”
An executive decision from the committee is expected on Monday.
Reporter: Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org