Senate Backs Bill to Keep Students in School Until 17

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008

Maryland high school students would have to stay in school until they turn 17, a year later than current law requires, under a bill that won preliminary approval yesterday in the state Senate.

Lawmakers representing struggling school districts in Prince George's County and the city of Baltimore have pushed the General Assembly for five years to raise the compulsory attendance age to reduce rising dropout rates. The effort has been stymied by estimates that keeping more students in school would cost millions of dollars.

Under the legislation, which passed a preliminary test on a 28 to 16 vote yesterday, the attendance age would rise in the 2010-2011 school year. An amendment would allow it to go up only if the governor set aside at least $45 million a year in the state budget to compensate school districts.

Students who are home-schooled, ill, in the military or considered by school officials to be disruptive or violent would be exempt from the bill.

Its lead sponsor, Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore), said current policy treats students too much like adults by letting them leave school at 16. She noted that current law allows students to quit without permission from their parents.

Their options are then limited largely to low-paying jobs when they enter the workforce, Pugh said. A requirement that they stay in school longer would actually save money by keeping more of them off the street and out of jail, she said.

Senators debated whether keeping teenagers in school longer should be a priority in a year when the state's economy is slowing and its budget is being cut. Some suggested that the state would be more effective at stimulating a student's interest in learning by intervening with more resources at a much younger age.

Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's) called the decision on whether to raise the mandatory attendance age a "tough issue," given the high dropout rate. But he said teenagers are "getting smarter today than they were" and may have "maxed out with what is taught in school" by the time they are 16.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said the legislature should devote more resources to general equivalency diploma programs for students who quit school but take classes toward a high school diploma.

"I have concern we're spending money on kids that want to get out of school," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset).

Almost 10,300 Maryland students dropped out of public schools last year, with Baltimore in the lead, according to a legislative analysis. Prince George's followed, losing 1,838 students, or 6.2 percent of the total, and Montgomery was next, with 1,342 dropouts or 5.2 percent of its student body.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company