If you’re unhappy with this week’s news that the state Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee tied on a 5-5 vote over whether to raise the age of compulsory education from 16 to 18 or upon completion of graduation requirements, you have company.

Here’s a letter scheduled to run in the Missoulian this Sunday:

It was one of those “are you kidding me” days. I picked up a daily paper to read that a bill to require students to stay in school till they were 18 or graduated didn’t make it out of committee (Missoulian, Jan. 19). One of the reasons was that it could cost the state over a million dollars if those kids stay in school. Are you kidding me! Somebody should have been embarrassed that was even said out loud. We don’t want them to stay in school because it costs too much?

Another reason for not forwarding the bill out of committee was, what to do the the kids who don’t want to be at school, and that the bill didn’t strike a the core of the problem. Are you kidding me! Most days most kids do not want to be at school and not wanting to be there is very much the core of the problem. Maybe if they had to be there they would have to be taught.

I don’t know when the 16 rule was put in place but this is a different time. A 16-year-old isn’t ready to make a decision that basically puts the rest of his or her life on hold. Of course parents should be helping their children make better decisions, but sometimes parents just need another tool in their “you have to stay in school” arsenal.

Maybe the bill needs to be tweaked a little. You could add “or have a GED,” but quite frankly, it costs more than a million dollars to our economy in the welfare bills we pay for the under-educated.

Susan Lake,
Ronan

Senate Bill 44 didn’t presume to fix Montana’s dropout problems all on its own, but it was held up as a key part of Montana Superintendent of Public Education Denise Juneau’s statewide campaign to keep kids in school, called Graduation Matters Montana.

The statewide initiative is patterned after Graduation Matters Missoula, our local community-wide push to encourage every one of our children to stay in school and graduate. Missoula’s graduation program was launched one year ago this week, and celebrated its anniversary on Wednesday – officially proclaimed Graduation Matters Missoula Day.

In that year, it has been credited with helping to cut Missoula’s dropout rate by 48 percent.

The bipartisan Senate Bill 44 (Juneau, a Democrat, teamed up with Sen. Taylor Brown, a Republican, to introduce the bill into the Legislature) is still available for review on the official Montana Legislature website. At only two pages long, it’s easy reading, and you can read for yourself the proposed list of education alternatives and exceptions to the requirements.

After the committee vote, which essentially tables the bill, one legislator made a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to “blast” it out of committee for a vote on the Senate floor.

Juneau has argued forcefully for the age increase, saying that while the world has changed a lot in the last 90 years, the age at which a Montana child may legally end her education has not.

Dropouts to jail

“We now live in a time of social and economic circumstances that requires, at a very minimum, a high school diploma,” Juneau wrote. “A high school graduate earns an average of more than $9,200 annually than a student who drops out. Individuals with a high school diploma have an employment rate twice as high as individuals who dropped out of high school. In addition, nearly 75 percent of the inmates in the Montana State Prison system are high school dropouts. About 35 percent of the population in the Montana State Prison system has achieved neither a diploma nor a GED.”

Currently, at least two dozen states have higher compulsory education age limits than Montana.

Meanwhile, state fiscal analysts predict that the bill could have kept an additional 1,000 students in school, which would increase the costs to the state by up to $1 million.

Last year, some 2,000 Montana students dropped out of school.

How are these kids spending their time? How many of them will be in a position to earn a living wage in the coming years? These are questions that worry Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Alex Apostle.

“There’s no question that we need that bill passed,” he told the Missoulian’s editorial board on Jan. 12, after testifying in favor of the bill before the state Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee.

“Right along with that bill,” he added, “if we say to kids that we need you to stay in school until age 18, we need to develop programs that inspire them to stay.”

We’ll see what sort of help the legislature is willing to provide as the session moves forward.

Here’s a list of the state senators who voted for the bill: Sen. Branae (D-Billings), Sen. Brown (R-Huntley), Sen. Facey (D-Missoula), Sen. Hawks (D-Bozeman) and Sen. Stewart-Peregoy (D-Crow Agency).

And here’s a list of the senators who voted against it: Sen. Essmann (R-Billings), Sen. Lake (R-Hamilton), Sen. Moore (R-Miles City) Sen. Ripley (R-Wolf Creek) and Sen. Zinke (R-Whitefish).

You can find their contact info here.