Drop Out, Drop Off

Monday, March 31, 2008

A16-YEAR-OLD in Maryland can't vote, buy a beer or join the military. Parental permission is needed to get a driver's license and to marry. Incredibly, though, a 16-year-old needs no permission to drop out of school, a decision of devastating consequence. This is an archaic, even immoral, law that needs to be changed.

Legislation increasing the legal dropout age to 17 was approved by the state Senate and faces an important test this week before a committee in the House of Delegates. It's the furthest the measure has gotten in five years; let's hope delegates now recognize that nothing can justify letting a high school sophomore make a decision that irrevocably shapes his or her life. The dropout age of 16, unfortunately still law in about half the states, is a remnant of a time when young people needed to quit school to help out on the family farm. The recent trend is for states to increase the age. The legal dropout age in Virginia and the District is 18.

Concern about the additional financial costs of trying to keep more students in school is the excuse for much of the opposition in Maryland. Such thinking ignores the state's responsibility to educate children, and it is shortsighted. The money Maryland spends on educating a student -- between $8,000 and $12,000 a year, depending on location -- is a bargain, considering the alternative. High school dropouts are more likely to be unemployed and more likely to commit crimes, and those who do find jobs earn far less than high school graduates.

It's disappointing that the State Board of Education has come out against the measure, largely because the bill doesn't provide other supports to keep children in school. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore), acknowledges that it is not a cure-all. Schools have to better engage students, and parents must play a larger role. There's no question, though, that many students drop out because they can. A report sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that "too much freedom" was a key factor cited by students in why they left school. Baltimore City and Prince George's County lead the state in the number of dropouts, and leaders there say raising the age could make a big difference in many lives. Not to do so is to allow what Prince George's Superintendent John E. Deasy has called "a permissible dead end."

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