Gazette opinion: Outdated dropout law fails Montana students

2011-01-21T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Outdated dropout law fails Montana students The Billings Gazette
January 21, 2011 12:00 am

One of the early disappointments of the 2011 Montana Legislature is a Senate committee's failure to support raising Montana's legal dropout age from 16 (or eighth-grade graduation) to 18 or high school graduation/GED completion.

The law sanctioning dropouts at age 16 was enacted in 1921 and doesn't reflect the 21st century need for completing a high school education as the minimum schooling to required for gainful employment.

SB44 wouldn't affect parental rights to have their children home schooled or to attend private schools. When the Senate Education and Cultural Resource Committee voted on Senate Bill 44 earlier this week, it failed to pass on a 5-5 tie. SB44 sponsor Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, was the only Republican voting in favor of raising legal expectations for educational attainment. He was joined by Gary Branae of Billings and three other Democrats.

Among the five Republicans voting against raising the dropout age was Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann of Billings. Asked to comment on his vote (which was cast by proxy), Essmann told The Gazette: “We need to treat the cause, not the symptom.” He added: “Without parental involvement at home, adoption of a standard by government is pretty meaningless.”

Asked what action the Montana Senate would take this session to address the causes of students dropping out, Essmann didn't offer any examples. He said Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau has some good ideas.

Unfortunately, any good ideas that cost money are unlikely to proceed this year. Ironically, opponents of SB44 have argued both that it wouldn't keep students in school and that it would cost too much. To be clear, the only cost from SB44 would be the per student state aid to local schools for students who stayed in school. The fiscal note of $1 million per year in general fund costs is based on an assumption that 244 fewer students would drop out next year if the legally sanctioned age was raised to 18. In the 2009-2010 school year, more than 2,000 students dropped out of Montana schools. If SB44 had no effect on dropouts, it would have no effect on the general fund.

Montana's dropout trends suggest that SB44 would reduce the dropout rate. Historically, the number of dropouts surges in 10th grade, when most students turn 16.

As Brown said in a committee hearing last week, “The goal is to raise expectations for parents, teachers, students and the community.” Expecting students to complete high school is key to building and strengthening Montana's work force, a point that Cathy Burwell, president of the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce, made in her committee testimony.

We commend Brown for having the political courage to do the right thing for Montana, and we appreciate the other senators who voted for SB44 as well as Juneau's support. Someday, Montana's official expectation of educational attainment will be raised to the level of most other states. Regrettably, it is unlikely to happen this year.

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