Gazette opinion: Montana must do more to keep kids in school

2010-08-04T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Montana must do more to keep kids in school The Billings Gazette
August 04, 2010 12:00 am

Montana recently made a top-10 list that no state wants to be on. The annual Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks our state 44th for having one of the highest (worst) rates of teens who are out of school with no high school diploma.

Nine percent of Montana teens fell into this dropout category in 2008, compared with 6 percent nationwide, according to the private, nonprofit foundation that advocates for disadvantaged children. The U.S. Census Bureau data used for the Kids Count report counts passing a General Educational Development (GED) test as graduating.

“Our dropout rate is high, and we need to do something about it,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau told The Gazette State Bureau last week. Juneau has already presented dropout prevention proposals to the 2009 Legislature and earlier this summer discussed dropout prevention plans for 2011 with an interim legislative committee.

One of her proposals seems so obvious that many Montanans will wonder why it hasn’t already been adopted. Juneau proposes to raise the age of compulsory school attendance to 18 or until the youth graduates from high school, whichever happens first.

Montana law allows students to drop out at age 16. The legal dropout age was raised from 14 to 16 in 1921 and hasn’t been changed in Montana since then. However, 18 states have a legal dropout age of 18, including South Dakota, Nebraska and Utah. Nine other states require youth to stay in school to age 17.

The number of teens dropping out leaps upward in grade 10, when most students turn 16. Last year, when 384 students dropped out of ninth grade, 587 dropped out of 10th, 671 dropped out in 11th and 711 in 12th grade.

A bill that would have raised Montana’s legal dropout age to 17 died in the 2009 Legislature. That bill also proposed to require children to start attending school by age 6, which would have been a change from present law, which requires children to start by age 7.

Next session, Juneau said, she will support a change in the upper limit only in an effort to keep more teens in school till they graduate.

In the 2008-09 school year, the total number of Montana kids who dropped out of grades 7-12 was 2,423, according to the Office of Public Instruction. That number is larger than the population of most Montana towns! Over the past five years, 10,373 students dropped out. That’s more people than live in many of our counties!

In our sparsely populated state, every kid counts. The potential of young people is too precious to waste.

The Great Recession notwithstanding, Montana has a labor shortage looming. Our state’s demographic profile has a paucity of residents in their 20s and 30s. We need those young workers to be well-educated and capable of contributing to their communities. Few jobs that pay well require less than a high school education, and most good jobs today require a year or two of college or other postsecondary training. Sixteen-year-old dropouts might have been able to earn a living in the 1920s, but not in 2010.

Juneau admits that raising the compulsory attendance age will be a tough sell in the Legislature. Keeping more teens in school means spending more on education and the state budget will be extremely tight.

In 2009, the fiscal note for House Bill 433, which proposed that children should be required to attend school from age 6 to 17, estimated the measure would cost the state an additional $705,000 a year. It died in House committee.

High school dropouts are more likely to be in prison or jail than high school graduates, earn less, have higher rates of divorce and single parenthood. The lifetime earnings lost from just the Montana dropouts of 2008-09 will amount to $830 million, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. That group also estimates that Montana would save $30 million in lifetime healthcare costs if all the dropouts from one year stayed in school and that the state would see a net revenue gain/crime expense cut if the male high school graduation rate increased by just 5 percent.

When the 2011 legislators review the fiscal note that calculates the cost of raising the legal dropout age to 18, they should also read up on the cost of not increasing the legal age.

Raising the compulsory attendance age is only one step Montanans should take to boost high school graduation. Thursday’s Gazette opinion will discuss how communities can help.


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