Maryland is poised to join a growing number of states that are requiring students to stay in school until their 18th birthday, a shift that President Barack Obama urged during his State of the Union address in January.
A measure to raise the compulsory attendance age — state students now must attend until they turn 16 — has cleared both chambers in the Maryland General Assembly. It needs final approval by the Senate, which is expected as early as today. Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign the legislation, which would fully take effect in 2017.
State officials estimate the change will require about 9,500 would-be dropouts to stay in school each year, at a cost of $54 million annually. Sponsors say the price is worth it.
"We have to have a policy in this state saying children are children and can't make adult decisions that will affect their livelihood," said Del. Aisha N. Braveboy, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill.
Leading educators, as well as the Maryland State Department of Education, supported the legislation.
"To put students on the street without a formal education is a disaster to us as a state and as a country," said Bernard J. Sadusky, the interim state superintendent of schools. "Shame on us if we don't supply those skills for all students."
Some lawmakers, including Del. John Olszewski, a former high school teacher, opposed the measure, saying that the money to implement the legislation could be better spent. "We are misplacing resources," the Baltimore County Democrat said.
He'd rather see the funds go toward programs with proven success — such as expanding school hours or adding additional school days — than force students to be in classrooms.
Delaware now also allows 16-year-olds to leave school, but the rest of Maryland's immediate neighbors require students to be in the classroom until they reach age 17 or 18.
Under the legislation, students would have to stay in school until turning 17 starting in July 2015. They would have to remain until their 18th birthdays starting in July 2017.
In recent years there's been a push to require students to stay in school longer. The issue got a boost when the president mentioned it in his State of the Union address.
"When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better," Obama said in January. "I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18."
Aside from Maryland, at least 12 other state legislatures have introduced legislation this year to raise the compulsory school age, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. Eighteen states now require schooling until 18.
Similar legislation has passed the Senate before, but the House has been a stumbling block. But it narrowly cleared the House Ways and Means Committee and was approved Thursday by the full House, 88-49.
"I think it became more clear that this change was coming," said Bebe Verdery, education reform director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which supports the bill. "They saw this as the future."
"We strongly believe this bill will help keep people in school, and it will also get schools to provide programs that are meaningful for 16- and 17-year-olds to make them want to stay in school," Verdery said.
School leaders applaud phasing in the change over several years, which gives them time to establish or adjust programs for educating older students who might prefer to be elsewhere. Most other states have not phased in the change, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Sean Johnson, a top staffer at the state teachers union, said it would be a "nightmare scenario" for schools to suddenly be forced to accommodate these older students in traditional classrooms.
The bill also would require studies and assessments to determine whether schools are prepared to make the change or need more time. If schools aren't making progress on establishing alternative programs, Johnson said, his group would ask the General Assembly to delay implementation.
The Baltimore school system has established some new programs in recent years, clearing out space in its North Avenue headquarters for an alternative school. The system has vastly reduced its dropout rate, which last year was the fourth-highest in the state.
State Sen. Catherine Pugh of Baltimore has pushed the issue since being elected to the upper house in 2007. She stopped by the House to watch some of the debate this week.
"We've worked this bill," she said.
Pugh's legislation failed in 2007, but a task force was created to study the impacts of such a change. This year, Pugh said, the Legislative Black Caucus, which she chairs, made the bill a priority item.
"We have a responsibility to educate our children until they are 18," she said.
There are exemptions in the legislation, including for students who are home-schooled, pregnant or have already obtained a General Educational Development certificate.