Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Michigan looks to rein in kids quitting school

LANSING - A century-old law lets Michigan students drop out of high school anytime after their 16th birthday.

Now Gov. Jennifer Granholm and some lawmakers want to change that.

Bills in the Legislature call for students to stay in school until they turn 18 unless they earn their diplomas first, one of several proposals aimed at improving Michigan's high school graduation rate.

Although differences in the ways that schools track dropouts makes firm figures hard to get, it's estimated that 75 to 90 percent of Michigan high school students graduate each year. The rest either drop out or get lost in a system that doesn't always account for students who transfer schools or move away.

In last month's State of the State address, Ms. Granholm said that some estimates say up to a quarter of Michigan's high school students are at risk of dropping out before graduation day.

She said that undermines their chances of earning a decent living, especially in Michigan's challenging economy, where even some college graduates are struggling to find jobs if they don't hold diplomas in high-demand fields.

The Democratic governor and other supporters of raising the graduation age to 18 know that simply raising the mandatory attendance age won't do much to keep students in school.

Other programs - ranging from more truancy officers to more investment in early education and career-oriented programs - are needed to keep students in class.

"We can't keep doing things the way we've been doing them, or they will continue to drop out," Michigan State Board of Education President Kathleen Straus told a House committee last month.

More states are raising their legal dropout age. Twenty-three states, including Michigan, now allow students to leave at 16; the rest require attendance until 17 or 18, according to a Michigan legislative analysis.

Some lawmakers are hoping that boosting the mandatory attendance age will help force other changes in the state's educational system.

They want more money for early education, which can help foster a love of learning and give children the basics to build on throughout their academic careers.

Educators also want more cash for alternative programs, such as partnerships with businesses aimed at training students for jobs in health care or other high-demand fields.

Tight state budgets have left little cash for investment in those programs.

If the roughly 35,000 students who drop out each year stayed in school until 18, it would cost the state up to $267 million more in annual per-pupil aid to districts.

The state now spends about $9.9 billion of its $13 billion school aid fund on per-pupil aid.

Some lawmakers worry forcing students who don't want to learn to stay will distract attention and resources from pupils who want to learn and make the most of their K-12 experience.

"It's shortchanging kids who do want to be there," said Rep. John Moolenaar (R., Midland).

Some question how the law would be enforced. Many districts lack truancy officers and already have a tough time keeping students in school until they reach 16.

Opponents note that up to 20,000 students between the ages of 13 and 15 drop out of the Michigan school system each year, according to an analysis from the House Legislative Analysis Section.

Jim Sandy of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce worries that raising the mandatory attendance age without making other needed changes could be misleading.

"It would give the impression the system has been fixed, when it hasn't been," Mr. Sandy said. "There's a lot of work to do."

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