Gazette opinion: Law should stop encouraging 16-year-old dropouts

2010-12-06T00:10:00Z 2011-01-07T10:46:32Z Gazette opinion: Law should stop encouraging 16-year-old dropouts The Billings Gazette
December 06, 2010 12:10 am

Thirty-one states, including Alaska, Colorado, South Dakota, Washington and Oregon, have laws requiring teens to stay in school till age 17 or 18.

Montana is among the minority of states that allow students to legally drop out at 16.

Perhaps stopping one's education at age 16 was reasonable when the Montana law was enacted in 1921. But it makes no sense in 2010.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau has made boosting high school graduation rates a priority. Working with local schools, other community members and the Montana University System, she has launched a project called Graduation Matters Montana to encourage youth to stay in school and to remove obstacles that lead to dropping out.

Juneau also plans to ask the 2011 Legislature to raise Montana's legal dropout age to 18, or upon graduation or passing a GED test — whichever happens first.

This is a no-brainer. Every Montanan needs a high school education, and most of us will need some post-secondary education to get good jobs.

High school graduation benefits the community and state, not just the individual. Quoting statistics from the Department of Justice and Department of Corrections, OPI reports that nearly 80 percent of male inmates and 70 percent of female inmates in Montana prisons are high school dropouts.

Keeping an inmate in prison costs tens of thousands of dollars a year. That doesn't include the cost of their criminal activity, such as personal injury, disability and property loss.

Furthermore, high school dropouts are more likely to use public assistance such as Medicaid because their incomes will be low and their risk of serious health problems high.

The difference between expected lifetime earning for graduates and dropouts amounts to $830 million for the Montana students who dropped out this year, according to the Alliance for Excellence in Education.

College & career ready

The goal is to have all students graduate “college and career ready,” Juneau said.

That's why OPI and the Montana University System are working to give students and parents a clear understanding of what entry-level college classes require them to know. Juneau wants to reduce the need for remedial classes at the college level.

She wants to encourage dual enrollment of students in high school and college, a model that is being used successfully by Kalispell schools and Flathead Community College where some students earn associate college degrees by the time they graduate from high school.

Montana's high school graduation rate (students graduating in four years) was 80.7 percent for the class of 2009. That sounds pretty good compared with the national median graduation rate of 74.6 percent. But the national rate is abysmal.

2,423 dropouts in 1 class

Consider the actual number of dropouts: 2,423 students who didn't graduate with their class in 2009. That's just one year!

Most towns in Montana have fewer than 2,423 residents. This is a huge loss for our state, particularly with our rapidly aging population. Montana needs all of its younger citizens to be well educated and able to be part of a skilled future work force.

“Peak dropout rates have traditionally been observed in the 10th grade, when many students turn 16,” a draft OPI report says.

Last week, Juneau was talking with various legislators about sponsoring the dropout-age bill. We encourage lawmakers to support this proposal, especially Yellowstone County legislators. Larger school districts have bigger dropout problems.

One obstacle that looms is the expected fiscal note, which will calculate how much more it will cost the state if more kids stay in school. We implore lawmakers to carefully consider what it is costing Montana now because 2,400 young people a year are dropping out before they get a high school diploma.

Keeping kids in school is a smart investment.

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