Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 17, 2007

Raising the compulsory school attendance age is such a practical way to combat the states high dropout rate, youd think legislators and educators would unanimously embrace legislative proposals to change school attendance laws.
While many do support the idea, some lawmakers and educators apparently are reluctant to get behind a movement to raise the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 17. For instance, Sen. David Hoyle, a Democrat from Gaston County, cast a no vote, fretting that raising the age might be just window dressing to prettify the fact that only 68 percent of North Carolina ninth-graders earn a high school diploma within four years. A spokeswoman for the N.C. School Boards Association worried that raising the dropout age would burden schools with more unmotivated, potentially disruptive students who really dont want to be there. Another concern is that it will cost more to teach and counsel those at-risk students who are compelled to stay in school past their 16th year.
Those arent trivial concerns, by any means. While the state can force students to attend school, its cant force them to pay attention, follow instructions or behave in a respectful fashion toward teachers and other students. It can only require that they put in their time, and in some cases, raising the dropout age may delay the inevitable for another year or so, at best. And, yes, any time you have more students in school, it inevitably takes more dollars to attempt to educate them.
But lets not deceive ourselves that a high dropout ratio is in any way a bargain for the community. Students who drop out may not be taking up space in our schools, but theyre far more likely to be taking up space in the unemployment line or, eventually, filling slots in our prisons. Teen dropouts may not be disrupting schools, but they are often beginning the slow, agonizing descent into dysfunctional lives. That exacts a high toll on the community, in lost potential as well as in a higher demand on social services and a greater likelihood of the costly consequences that result when people engage in risky behaviors.
For too long, our current compulsory attendance law has subtly reinforced the idea that its OK for students to give up on themselves and their futures at age 16. Despite pockets of opposition, a Senate committee took the first step toward changing that attitude by approving a proposal to raise the compulsory attendance age to 17. Similar measures also have been proposed in the House and deserve passage. Raising the mandatory attendance age isnt a cureall for our abysmal dropout rate, but it is an important part of a broader strategy to address the issue. Its a straightforward change that would send a straight-forward message to teens contemplating a decision with profound implications for the rest of their lives: You may not see the importance of staying in school, but the state takes another view.