Maryland is on the verge of raising the age that children would be required to stay in school.

Under a bill that passed the House of Delegates on Thursday, children would have to stay in school through age 16 starting in the 2015-16 school year. The requirement now is through age 15.

In the 2017-18 school year, the age would rise again to 17 — meaning students could not drop out until turning 18.

Aisha Braveboy ((Courtesy — Aisha Braveboy))

During floor debate in the House, proponents argued that the state should do all it can to help students graduate and increase their earning potential.

“We have a moral obligation to educate all kids in this state,” said Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery), a chief proponent of the bill.

Del. Tiffany T. Alston (D-Prince George’s) said the state would save money on prison costs and other social services by investing in the education of potential high school dropouts.

“The reality is, you’re a child until you’re 18,” Alston said.

Opponents of the bill argued that parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s schooling and questioned whether changing the requirement would significantly increase the number of children who attend school.

Legislative staff estimate that, with more students staying in school, the state will spend an additional $35 million in local education aid when the compulsory age is raised to 16. Once it rises to 17, the cost will be about $54 million more a year, according to the estimate.

“It means more money,” said Del. Herbert H. McMillan (D-Anne Arundel), who predicted many students subject to the new requirement will cut class. “It doesn’t mean the kids are in school.”

The bill exempts several categories of students from the new requirement, including those who receive home schooling, those who have to work to provide financial assistance for their family and those who are pregnant.

During the past decade, an average of about 9,500 students a year have dropped out of Maryland schools, according to legislative staff.

The problem is particularly acute in Prince George’s County, which has the highest dropout rate in the state.