Bryan Fischer
Raising compulsory attendance age bad idea
By Bryan Fischer
February 4, 2009

A well-intentioned but wrong-headed bill which will raise Idaho's compulsory attendance age to 18 will receive a hearing in the House Education Committee. Idaho's current compulsory attendance law expires at age 16.

While Rep. Rich Jarvis's motive is commendable — it's an effort to reduce the dropout rate — it has several negatives.

It will cost taxpayers around $11 million, likely a non-starter in the current economic climate. This figure comes from the State Department of Education, and is based on the additional cost of educating the almost 1,900 students who drop out in their high school years.

It also ignores the simple truth that there is almost no way to force a 16- or 17-year old to learn if he doesn't want to. This is likely to lead increasing discipline problems and interfere with the education process for those students are in class to learn.

Plus, many of these dropouts would falsely claim they are being educated at home, which would quickly lead to a call for more regulation of home schoolers and tie up social services and law enforcement personnel in truancy investigations and prosecutions. Is that really the direction we want to go?

Parents of "habitually truant" students can be fined up to $1,000 and spend up to six months in jail. It simply makes no social sense to hold parents accountable for the actions of individuals who are old enough to be held accountable for their own choices.

A Canyon County judge who works with its attendance court complains that his court has already seen a 50% increase in the last year alone in the case load for probation officers and in the writing of misdemeanor and infraction citations. He said that changing the law would necessitate "more clerk time, more security time (and) more bailiff time," plus more probation officers, more judges, more public defenders, and would place increasing pressure on court dockets. Right now, he says, there are just two or three attendance courts in the entire state.

And there are serious questions as to whether such a change will actually do any good. According to Sharon Fisher in New West, only two of the 12 states that have higher graduation rates than Idaho have a dropout age of 18.

Said the Canyon County judge, "If we're looking to a law to deliver us from dropout problems, you're looking in the wrong place."

The larger issue is to examine the characteristics of students who successfully complete high school. An abundant amount of social research convincingly demonstrates that the highest predictor of academic success is a stable, intact home environment. It might be far better for the legislature to turn its attention to ways in which it can foster lasting marriages and slow down the disintegration of the nuclear family.

It might be better to keep our compulsory attendance law — if we are to have one at all — right where it's at, and make it our goal to teach students everything they need to know to graduate high school by the time they turn 16.

© Bryan Fischer


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