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How Long Do Kids Have to Stay in School? Longer Than They Did 5 Years Ago

Many states have significantly raised their mandatory-attendance age in the last five years, new federal data show.

In a 2012 State of the Union address, then-President Obama called for states to prevent students from dropping out before age 18. At the time, 18 states still allowed students to leave school at the traditional age of 16, but as of 2017, none do—and only Alabama allows students to leave before age 18. 

Yet the data show there is still a massive hodge-podge of state laws governing how many years students must attend school, as well as the ages at which states will pay for free schooling. For example, students in Virginia must attend school for 13 years, four more than students just over the border in North Carolina, and parents in Massachusetts can enroll their children in public school three years earlier than parents in New Mexico can.

Texas offers the longest access to public K-12 education, from ages 5 to 26. But Massachusetts begins earliest, at age 3—and the Bay State allows individual school districts to enroll even younger students if they choose. By contrast, parents in Connecticut and Missouri can opt their 5- and 6-year-olds out of school.

In spite of the increase in the average mandatory school age nationwide, the evidence remains unclear on whether and how much attendance laws have contributed to changes in states' overall graduation rates


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