Are States Willing to Require School Attendance Until Age 18?

Last year, a handful of states considered changing their school attendance laws without Obama's prodding.

In his third State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama urged states to require that students stay in school until they either graduate or turn 18. “We… know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” Obama said in his address to Congress.

A document outlining the president’s proposal in more detail noted that research has found strong dropout laws lead to more lifetime earnings for students; a 2003 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Philip Oreopoulos, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, estimated that “dropouts compelled to take an additional year of high school earn about 10 to 14 percent more than dropouts without the additional year.”

So how much action is necessary to realize Obama’s goal of every state requiring compulsory school attendance until graduation or age 18? According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 21 states and the District of Columbia already have that requirement in place (see map below). In 11 states, the mandated age is 17; in 18 states, it is 16. NCSL noted, though, that almost every state law has exceptions for physical and mental conditions or parental permission in order to drop out.

Reginald Felton, assistant executive director for Congressional relations at the National School Boards Association (NSBA), observed that, because Obama did not outline a specific policy “that addressed how the idea would be implemented,” it was difficult to gauge the practicality of the president’s proposal.

There are cost concerns in implementing mandatory attendance laws, NCSL spokesman Jon Kuhl told Governing. NCSL estimates that the federal government provides about 10 percent of education revenue for states and school districts. More students staying in school longer inevitably means more costs for schools. “If the federal government wants to mandate a change, they’re going to have to pay for it,” Kuhl said.

That said, it could be argued that costs aren't deterring the introduction of such laws. Several states considered strengthening their dropout prevention laws in 2011, according to NCSL. Bills were introduced in Alaska (where attendance is required until age 16), Illinois (17), Kentucky (16), Maryland (16) and Rhode Island (16). Only Rhode Island's bill was successful.

This year, a dropout prevention bill was reintroduced in Kentucky, helped with some support from First Lady Jane Beshear. The state's House Education Committee passed a bill Jan. 17 that would require students to stay in school until graduation or age 18, according to the Associated Press.

Delaware Rep. Debra Heffernan proposed a bill this year, prior to Obama’s announcement, to bump the state’s requirement from 16 to 18. “Times have changed. In the 21st century, a high school diploma is no longer optional if we want our young people and our state’s economy to be successful, we need our students to graduate,” Heffernan said in a statement. “A high school diploma is really the minimum education for young people today who want economic success and independence.”

As those examples show, states have already been taking action "without any prodding from the federal government," Steve Berlin, spokesman of the National Association of State Boards of Education, told Governing.

Changing legislation isn't a simple solution to preventing dropouts, though. Innovative efforts to keep students engaged in school would also be necessary "if we're serious about completion," NSBA's Felton said. Alternative learning environments and online course materials for those students are examples that school districts have already pursued.

In a January 2011 report, the NCSL Task Force on School Dropout Prevention and Recovery recommended several actions that states could take to strengthen their dropout prevention statutes: revoke work permits or driving privileges for students who drop out before the required age; provide students wishing to drop out with information about the economic repercussions of doing so; and inform students of options to complete a high school diploma after dropping out.

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Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

Dylan Scott is a GOVERNING staff writer.