A report last week that Montgomery County officials now favor raising from 16 to 18 the minimum legal age at which students can drop out of school signals a growing awareness that Maryland's future depends on a well-educated work force capable of competing in a global economy. Along with Baltimore City and Prince George's County, Montgomery County's support means there will now be a substantial bloc of lawmakers in the General Assembly ready to back toughening the requirements for school attendance to ensure that Maryland doesn't fall behind.
The law requiring students to stay in school only until 16 is a vestige on an earlier era when young people often were needed back on the farm as soon as they had learned the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. Obviously, that's no longer an economic necessity for most families. What is needed are students who are well-enough prepared in secondary school to go on to college or learn a vocation; it goes without saying that job prospects for high-school dropouts are abysmal.
Previous arguments against raising the legal dropout age - that it would cost the state too much money or that students who don't want to be in school would disrupt those who do - ring hollow in a world in which a ninth- or 10th-grade education is no longer enough to compete in the job market. The real question is how much it costs the state not to require students to remain in school until they have acquired enough learning to at least have a reasonable shot at making their way in the world.
Maryland spends about $10,000 for every public school student in the state. Officials assume that a certain percentage of those students will drop out, so $40 million in savings from not educating them is baked into the budget.
But is the state really saving anything? A 2008 report by the Maryland Public Policy Institute estimated that each year's class of high school dropouts costs taxpayers about $50 million every year in lost tax revenues, higher Medicaid costs and incarceration expenses. Dropouts, it found, were significantly more likely to be unemployed or to have substance abuse problems, and they were twice as likely as graduates to spend time in jail.
Let's see: Saving $40 million a year by not keeping students in school, then turning around and spending $50 million on the extra costs associated with dropping out? That doesn't sound like much of a bargain.
As for kids who don't want to be in school interfering with their classmates' education, most school systems already have programs to deal with disruptive students. In Baltimore City, for example, students who've been suspended for behavioral problems are required to attend classes in an alternative school located at school department headquarters.
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, says she'll introduce legislation to raise the minimum dropout age when the General Assembly meets in January. Her plan would make attendance compulsory until the age of 17 during the first year it was in effect, then raise it to 18 the following year. There's nothing in her bill that would prevent educators from removing disruptive students from the classroom, nor would it prevent teachers and principals from sanctioning kids with serious behavior issues. But it does recognize that in a knowledge-based global economy, we can't afford to allow 16-year-olds to drop out of school and shortchange themselves as well as the taxpayers who are left to pay for their rash decisions.
There has always been a percentage of the population that isn't academically oriented. Forcing them to stay in school is not going to help them, let alone the other students who do appreciate the academics.
Any public official who argues against raising the minimum age at which students can legally leave school because it will raise the cost of education is beyond cynical.