BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts high school students would be required to stay in school until age 18 under a bill approved Thursday by a legislative panel hoping to reduce the number of students who drop out of school.
The compulsory school attendance age in Massachusetts is currently 16, with certain exceptions for children as young as 14.
In addition to raising the dropout age to 18, with no exemptions, the bill advanced by the joint Education Committee contains other proposals to get students "across the finish line to graduation," said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, who co-chairs the panel.
President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address in January, called on every state to require students to stay in high school until age 18. Twenty-one states have an 18-year-old dropout age, including Rhode Island, where Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed legislation last summer raising the mandatory attendance age from 16.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has expressed support for the higher dropout age. State education officials have noted, however, that the dropout rate among high school students has been declining steadily in recent years. They said the 2011 dropout rate of 2.7 percent was down from 2.9 percent the previous year and the lowest rate in two decades.
The education committee's bill would raise the dropout age in two phases, going to 17 in the 2013-2014 academic year and to 18 the following year. Graduation "coaches" would be hired in many schools to work closely with students judged to be most at risk of dropping out. Schools would also be pushed to find alternatives to suspensions and expulsions because many of those students ultimately drop out.
No committee members voted against the bill, but three Republicans on the panel asked not to have their votes recorded because of uncertainty over how much the new initiatives would cost and how they would be funded.
During a news conference following the vote, Chang-Diaz acknowledged that supporters did not have a cost estimate for the bill, but pointed to existing funding mechanisms such as Chapter 70, which provides annual state assistance to public school districts. She said the graduation coaches called for in the bill would be paid for by the state and not the local districts.
The bill now goes to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which will do a cost analysis.
Supporters of the higher compulsory attendance age pointed to bleak economic statistics that show high school dropouts are more likely than graduates to be poor, unemployed or wind up in jail.
"To put it quite bluntly, the American dream is dead for America's high school dropouts," said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
The average dropout also will pay on average $500,000 less in taxes over their lifetime and require the most government assistance, Sum said.
Araba Adoboe, 17, of Amherst, a member of the group Teens Leading the Way, said she left high school a year ago after a bout with mononucleosis caused her to fall behind in classwork and her school did not the offer the resources she needed to make up the work.
"If I had a graduation coach, maybe I could have received tutoring, or changed schools," said Adoboe, who is now studying for her GEDs and plans to attend college. The bill, if it becomes law, would provide students like her a "path to graduation and success," she added.