Raising dropout age would be big mistake

For Illinois' resource-strapped school districts, taking on another mandate makes no sense.

During his decades-long run as a political demagogue before becoming The Accidental Governor, Pat Quinn specialized in proposing simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Last week, Quinn was back to his old tricks. A day after President Barack Obama made the mistake of recommending that the high school dropout age be raised to 18, Gov. Quinn compounded the problem by jumping on the Obama bandwagon.

"The best way to ensure that our children have the chance to achieve and succeed is to make sure they stay in school long enough to earn their diploma," Quinn said.

Well, of course. What could be more obvious than that graduating from high school is better both for individual students and society than dropping out? But keeping kids in school is much easier said than done, and it will take more than a few bromides from Quinn to produce the kind of results he suggests.

Here's the problem — many students of all ages don't want to be in school. The older they are, the harder it is to identify them as truants and legally compel them to attend.

How much of a school district's precious and limited resources should teachers and administrators expend to compel the attendance of older teens? Even assuming that financial resources were unlimited, it's questionable whether this goal would be worth pursuing. But for districts already operating on a shoe string, many waiting for promised state appropriations, taking on this proposed new mandate borders on ridiculous.

No one should underestimate the attractiveness of this issue. If it wasn't poll tested and found appealing, the idea never would have made it into President Obama's State of the Union address.

That's why Illinois' legislators may well be smitten, too. It would give them something superficially appealing to talk about as they run for re-election, and it would be a whole lot safer than taking on the state's real problems.

Jane Quinn, the regional superintendent of education for Champaign and Ford counties, said raising the age is "kind of like mom and apple pie." But she warns that "once kids reach a certain age ... it's pretty hard to keep them there" because they first must be identified as truants and then dragged through an enforcement process aimed at compelling them to attend.

Under the old minors-in-need-of-supervision law (MINS), truants were identified, dragged into court and ordered as a condition of their legal status to attend school. If they did not, they could be held in contempt of court and ordered to attend school at the county's juvenile detention center. The vast majority of young people who found themselves in that situation went back to school.

But Illinois repealed its MINS law years ago, essentially legalizing truancy. That was such a big flop that lawmakers subsequently passed a new law aimed at truants, one that unfortunately established a needlessly complicated procedure to compel school attendance.

If that approach is to be used, it's better to use it on children young enough to benefit from the effort expended to get their attention. Seventeen-year-olds don't fall in that category.

Public schools, especially these days, have much to do and not enough resources to do it with. Adding another ill-advised mandate will only make a bad situation worse. Quinn's proposal should be emphatically rejected.

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Bob620 wrote on January 31, 2012 at 7:01 pm

  The drop out age should absolutely be raised to 18. Yes schools are strapped financially which is why all school sports and many other extra curricular activities should be eliminated and in self supportive  clubs that are are not connected to the any school systems. Drivers education should be privatized as driving is a privalege not a right. There are many many other ways to cut spending. We should also have learn to earn programs  to teach high school age kids, not college bound, the skills needed in todays job market.If many of the kids had an opportunity to learn a trade while making money at the same time they just might have a little more interest in staying in school.