Alaska editorial: Raise the dropout age

Posted: Monday, December 25, 2006

This editorial appeared in The Voice of the Times:

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Should Alaska raise the mandatory school dropout age from 16 to 18? Probably, but the issue is not as clear-cut as it may seem.

For one thing, children can legally leave home and declare themselves independent of their parents at age 16. If they can't be forced to stay at home, how can they be forced to stay in school?

And mandating that unmotivated youngsters remain in classrooms can be a problem both for their classmates and for teachers. Kids who aren't interested in what they're being taught can be disruptive and make it difficult for others to learn.

They also detract from the classroom environment and reduce the professional satisfaction of dedicated teachers who are trying to help them.

Sen. Bettye Davis, an Anchorage Democrat, says she plans to file a bill in the next legislative session raising the limit.

The hope is that keeping kids off the streets will reduce the youth crime and gang problem and increase their exposure to education.

The law has the backing of, among others, Carol Comeau, Anchorage's superintendent of schools and one of the most knowledgeable people in the state on K-12 education.

Such a law would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. Parents could just pull the kids out of the classroom and claim they are home-schooling them.

It would give parents who want their children to remain in school some leverage by letting them tell the kids they have to continue their education because it's the law. But what penalties could be imposed that would hold water? Sentence the parents to 30 days in school?

That said, it's still worth trying. Raising the age has reduced dropout rates in states where it has been tried. Youngsters with problems will still drop out long before they should, but as things stand, the law seems to invite dropping out at age 16.

A new law would address only part of the problem. The children's home situation, which can increase or reduce their interest in self-improvement, and elevating the attraction of the classroom would also be vital parts of the equation.

Whatever means are used, the key is obviously increasing the kids' interest in being educated.

That requires innovative teaching methods and developing interesting subject matter focused on skills the kids will need in the next stage of their education and in their adult lives.

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