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Obama Push on Mandatory Attendance Age Stalls in States

Various news outlets are highlighting an Associated Press report that despite President Barack Obama's call for states to raise their compulsory school attendance age to 18 in his State of the Union speech at the start of the year, officials in all but one state responded with an implicit, "No thanks."

In his Jan. 24 address, Obama specifically called on states "to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18," saying that it would directly lead to more high school students earning diplomas.

The consensus concerning the mandatory attendance age, which my colleague Lesli Maxwell wrote about in February, usually is shaped by the idea that just raising it is not a magic bullet. To adopt the kind of comprehensive policies that many experts agree would make raising the compulsory attendance age truly effective would not only be more complicated, but would also cost states more money. That is what often (and especially recently) turns off state lawmakers. As a result, only 21 states and the District of Columbia require students to be 18 before they drop out of school.

This year, compulsory age efforts in a few states that Lesli mentioned in her story, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey, went bust.

One emerging policy that could change traditional thinking about compulsory attendance the adoption by many states of competency-based requirements for students, instead of traditional seat-time requirements, said Bob Wise, president of the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education.

"That could, in a few years, mean that the graduation age will not be as relevant," Wise said.

Wise also cited the big and complicated workload many states are facing in education, from implementation of the Common Core State Standards to obtaining waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act.

"It's an important statement. It's an important aspiration. But folks are doing a lot of heavy lifting in other areas that will eventually support that aspiration anyhow," Wise said.

Let's take a look at the only state that agreed this year to raise its compulsory attendance age. Maryland's new law, sponsored by Del. Aisha Braveboy, a Democrat, increases the compulsory attendance age, but does so in two increments, starting several years from now. The law requires the attendance age to increase from 15 to 16 in the 2015-16 school year and from age 16 to 17 for the 2017-18 school year. (That means the age at which students can legally drop out, or the compulsory attendance age, becomes 18.)

On average, in the last three school years ending in 2010-11, the state's Department of Legislative Services reported in its analysis of the bill, about 8,000 Maryland students each year dropped out of high school. Over the last 10 years, the dropout rate decreased annually by about 1 percent, according to that analysis. To help districts cover the cost of the additional students, the early best estimates from the state's Department of Legislative Services is that state aid to education would have to increase by $8.8 million in fiscal 2017 and $35.6 million in fiscal 2018, and then ultimately $70 million in fiscal 2020.

Some of the groundwork for the legislation was laid in 2007 task force recommendations delivered to Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, and the General Assembly about raising the compulsory attendance age to 18.

Interestingly, the task force's report puts the additional annual cost of raising the compulsory age, based on recent numbers at the time of the report, at about $200 million a year. The report is a few years old, but that's a far cry from the highest estimate from the state of $70 million in fiscal 2020 associated with Braveboy's bill. Caroline Boice, an analyst with the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, said that the 2007 report used a different method for calculating the additional costs, and that the number of dropouts has decreased since 2007, which also accounts for the difference in the costs.

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