Legislators consider raising dropout age again

One year after raising the dropout age to 17–and before that change even takes effect–legislators are considering another change to require that students stay in school until they graduate or turn 18.

“We can’t have the dropout rate as high as it is,” said Tom Murphy, spokesman for the State Department of Education. “Something has to change.”

Just over 4,400 public high school students dropped out of school during the 2007-08 school year, the most recent year with available data, which is about 2.5 percent of all high school students.

The proposal to increase the dropout age to 18 was overwhelmingly approved this week by the Education Committee. If it becomes law, Connecticut will join 20 other states that have already made the move in recent years.

But evidence is mixed as to whether the change increases graduation rates. Of the six states that raised their dropout age to 18 between 2002 and 2008, just two–Illinois and South Dakota–experienced increases in their graduation rates and Nevada even experienced a decline, according to a report from the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University.

And Rep. Timothy LeGeyt, R-Canton, one of two people on the Education Committee to vote against increasing the dropout age, questioned whether raising the age to 18 will be beneficial.

“We are picking an age that the student is allowed to leave school,” said LeGeyt, a retired elementary school teacher. “Let’s set it at a reasonable age so the district doesn’t have to chase them to get them back to school.”

Murphy said this is also a concern of education officials.

“If a student really doesn’t want to be there it is going to be difficult to teach them” or even get them to attend school, he said. But keeping them in school “clearly outweighs” those potential problems, he said.

Many dropouts elect to enroll in an adult education program to earn their General Education Degree, and the proposed legislation would allow students to leave high school before 18 as long as they prove they are enrolled in adult education. But educators and advocates say that is not a suitable alternative.

“These learners are best served through the comprehensive educational offerings of a school district’s high school,” Acting Education Commissioner George Coleman said during a hearing on the dropout age bill.

“Adult education has neither the same academic rigor nor the breadth of services,” testified Aaron M. Roy with the Center for Children’s Advocacy. “Younger students tend not to do as well in adult education as their older peers.”

Murphy also said many adult education programs have waiting lists, leaving dropouts without a place to continue their schooling.

But adult education officials told lawmakers that it is a suitable environment for some students where the traditional high school environment is not working.

“In an ideal world we would love to see all students remain in high school and then graduate,” said Richard Tariff, director of adult programs in 21 towns in Eastern Connecticut. “I can share countless stories as to why students needed to leave their high schools. Anything from incarceration, substance abuse, family crisis, economics, pregnancy, bullying, harassment and need for employment are some of the common reasons why students leave high school.”