Bill aims to raise school drop-out age by two years

Supporters hope to curb increasing youth violence

Posted: Monday, December 18, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The age at which a student is allowed to drop out of school would be pushed back by two years under a bill spearheaded by an Anchorage lawmaker and the school district.

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Supporters say raising Alaska's mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 18 could help reduce the number of students who leave school early in a state with one of the nation's highest dropout rates. Local education officials say it could help curb an increase in youth violence in Anchorage.

"With what our (dropout) rates are, we ought to be trying to do anything we can to improve them," said Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, who will be supporting the proposal.

Wasana Janklang, 24, who is a mother of two, said dropping out of school is too easy. She left East High School when she was barely 17, and pregnant with her first child.

Janklang, who never finished high school and is struggling to support her family with two jobs, wishes someone had made her go back.

"We are not strict enough about school," Janklang said. "Most kids don't know what is best and they are not thinking about their futures."

However the proposal, similar to one that died in the Legislature last year, has many opponents.

"What's the point?" asked Rich Kronberg, a longtime special education teacher at Mears Middle School in Anchorage. "Kids drop out for a variety of reasons. Just by saying you are going to violate the law does not change those reasons. It's not dealing with the problem. It's a substitute for coming up with real solutions."

Rafael Heller, senior policy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based research and policy organization, said the goal behind the idea is a good one but "is not the silver bullet."

A high-quality school is more likely to keep kids in class than the law, he said.

"Kids are not going to drop out and they are not going to be attracted by youth gangs if they are engaged and motivated to go to school," Heller said.

Three years ago, 3,000 students dropped out of Alaska's public schools, according to the latest numbers from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

Proponents of the Alaska idea are not sure how they will enforce it. Anchorage superintendent Carol Comeau said no one enforces the current requirement and the proposed measure might not contain penalties.

But she is still one of the bill's foremost supporters.

"Age 16 is too young for kids to be dropping out of high school," Comeau said.

Last year, Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, introduced a bill saying a student may not drop out until after turning 17. The bill did not make it past the House education committee.

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