Bill aims to raise dropout age

Critics say proposal isn't enough to keep students in school

Posted: Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Juneau resident LuAnn Rutherford is at her wit's end.

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She desperately wants her son, 17-year-old Jon Knight, to graduate from high school. But now that he's past the age of compulsory education for Alaska, she has no legal authority to make him go to school.

"I drop him off at school, but what am I supposed to do - walk him around to classes? I have to work," she said. "They've (the state) taken the power away from the parents, and the children know that. If he gets in trouble when I am at work, I'm liable for it. Why can't I make him go to school?"

Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, introduced a bill last week to the Alaska Legislature that, if passed, would raise the age of compulsory education from 16 to 17. Some, such as Rutherford, say it's long overdue. Others support the bill in principle, but liken it to putting a bandage on a tumor - it may make things feel better, but it doesn't cure the disease.

Rutherford said her son, who hasn't officially dropped out, is quitting school because he sees it as irrelevant. He started high school as an A and B student. She wants the compulsory age raised to 18.

"He doesn't think that a high school diploma is going to do any good in his life," she said. "He sees it as a trophy for 12 years of boredom. He thinks he can make as much money if he gets a job now."

Roger Sampson, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, said he wouldn't oppose the proposed bill, but he wants to see the details, according to Eric Fry, spokesman for the department. Fry said raising the compulsory age isn't a magic bullet to kill the state's dropout rate, which now hovers at 63 percent.

"It doesn't guarantee someone will leave high school with a diploma. It might require a kid to stay longer, but in and of itself, it doesn't address the reason they drop out to begin with," Fry said. "If more kids feel their needs are being met, the more likely they are to stay in school."

Fry added that no cost analysis has been conducted to see what the affects of raising the age would be. He also said raising the age might lead to behavior problems in the class by students who would have previously dropped out. He wants to know exactly what the bill will do and how it will be paid for.

A similar bill submitted last year by two Juneau-area representatives was killed in committee. The compulsory age is 16 in 26 states. Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, has a bill to deny driver's licenses to dropouts. Davis could not be reached for comment.

Bernie Sorenson, the principal of Juneau-Douglas High School said she supports raising the compulsory age, not so much for what it might do, but for what it says.

Many students that drop out do so before they reach the compulsory age already. Sorenson said increasing the age would raise expectations among students about how to approach their education and send a message that Alaska values education. Most students who drop out of JDHS do so in the 10th grade, right around the time they take an exam they need to pass to graduate, according to school records.

The JDHS graduation rate for 2006 was 65.8 percent, up from 63 percent the year prior.

Despite the improvement, Sorenson is clearly not satisfied with the graduation rate. When a student drops out, it is gut-wrenching, Sorenson said.

"It totally kills you," she said. "It's incredibly hard to watch that happen when you realize we don't have all the options to meet their needs."

• Will Morris can be reached at

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