Almost every plank of the stereotypical legislator’s economic platform — good, high-paying jobs; opportunities for young adults to find meaningful work without leaving the state; value-added production in industries that goes beyond simple resource extractions and leads to higher prices for Montana goods — can be more easily attained if high school graduation rates improve.
Which is why it’s so puzzling that a Senate committee Monday didn’t advance a proposal to raise the state’s dropout age to 18 from its current 16. The 5-5 deadlock in Senate Education and Cultural Resources wasn’t quite a straight party line vote, as Republican Taylor Brown, the bill’s sponsor, joined the panel’s four Democrats in supporting the measure, while the other five GOP members were opposed. Senators Rick Ripley, Wolf Creek, Jeff Essman, Billings, Bob Lake, Hamilton, Eric Moore, Miles City and committee chair Ryan Zinke, Whitefish, voted against raising the age limit for dropping out.
Sitting on a 5-5 tie, the bill is technically still alive in the committee, according to Senate rules, which require the committee take a positive action on it at some point this session. Either a “no” vote will become a “yes,” or a “yes” vote will become a vote to table. We urge the committee to keep this bill alive and give it the full Senate floor discussion it deserves.
Leaving the dropout age in place at age 16 sends a message to Montana’s teens that quitting school is an acceptable option. Almost nobody — not even the brightest, most advanced students — fulfill all the requirements needed to graduate from high school by that age. So by telling students they can quit at 16, we’re effectively telling them it’s OK not to finish school. And that’s not right.
Raising the age to 18, the age when most kids graduate, would tell students that there’s an expectation that they complete high school. In today’s globally competitive world, that’s not an unreasonable expectation. Indeed, a high school diploma is almost mandatory for anyone hoping to find meaningful work and earn a salary good enough to support a family.
Opponents claim that raising the dropout rate won’t solve the problem, and that doing so would force teens to stay in school when they don’t want to be there, to the detriment of those who do. We know plenty of 14-year-olds who don’t like school either — should they be allowed to quit? Other privileges, including voting and serving in the military, to say nothing of having a beer, aren’t afforded to Montanans until they’re 18 or older. Why should a decision as important as leaving school be left to someone who hasn’t reached even that level of maturity?
Sorry, but a big part of life is doing things you don’t want to do, and going to school can certainly fall into that category. That’s no excuse not to go. And raising the compulsory age to 18 would encourage the state’s school districts to find innovative and creative ways to reach these kids, to help them find the value in education and lay a better foundation for a more prosperous life down the road.
State Superintendent Denise Juneau’s staff said that if she’s re-elected, she’ll bring the proposal back to the Legislature in 2013. Sometimes it takes a session or two for political will and/or public sentiment to marshal enough support for proposals of this sort, and we hope this is one of those cases and the proposal will get through the process — either now, or in two years.
There will always be dropouts, and some for legitimate family or personal reasons. But it’s a terrible handicap with which to enter adulthood, and the Legislature should recognize the importance of a diploma and do its part to ensure more Montanans earn one.