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NJ Bill Would Raise Age of Compulsory Education to 18

John Mooney | February 6, 2012

Keeping kids in school longer, experts contend, is only one part of a larger solution.

Credit: Amanda Brown
Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer)

Even before President Obama pressed the idea in his State of the Union message, New Jersey and other states were looking to address the dropout crisis by keeping kids in school until they're 18.

Seven states have upped the age in the past decade; 11 others -- including New Jersey -- have introduced legislation in the past five years.

In all, 21 states require students to stay in school until 18 or their graduation.

But as New Jersey's bill to raise the age from 16 to 18 gets new life, including a hearing today in the state Senate, it is becoming apparent that just upping the age is no quick fix -- or even a slow one.

"In those states [that have raised the age], there has not been much evidence that it has had an impact," said Jennifer Zinth, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based organization that follows state policies.

A report by a Massachusetts think-tank, completed in 2009 as that state was considering a new bill, said there may be a minimal gain in raising the age for students on the cusp.

"However, it is important to note that the most prominent advocates of the policy acknowledge that raising the compulsory school age alone will not result in fewer dropouts and more graduates," read the report by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. "They argue that this policy must be coupled with other actions and new alternatives to help at-risk students progress through high school."

New Jersey public schools have the highest recorded graduation rate in the country -- over 80 percent. But the dropout crisis is real in many of its cities, where in some high schools as many as half of the freshmen don't go on to graduate.

Still, the move to raise the compulsory age has never gotten much traction in the Statehouse in years past, usually derailed by concerns over short-term costs. And while those concerns remain, legislators said it was time to reconsider the long-term costs of not addressing the problem.

"Quite simply -- and quite tragically -- too many of our students are being allowed to walk away before they've completed their education and built a foundation for their future," said state Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), the primary sponsor. "Futures are being lost under our current law."

Her bill easily won bipartisan endorsement in the Assembly education committee last week, and the Senate education committee has quickly posted the measure for a hearing this morning.

Last week's Assembly hearing raised the same worries that have been expressed elsewhere, that this is only a piece in what needs to be a more comprehensive approach. One advocate after another said that it needs to be coupled with programs that will keep students wanting to be in schools, not just compelled to stay there.

"While certainly we can raise the age, we need to do more to make sure if they are kept in school, they are engaged in learning that is meaningful," said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of Vocational-Technical Schools.

One perspective came from the state's court system charged with enforcing the state's current truancy law, enacted in 1967.

Daniel Phillips, legislative liaison for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said that 80 percent of all inmates in the state's prisons are high school dropouts, but that too few programs have caught up to the fact that the decision to leave school has many reasons.

The current law defines truancy "as an act of delinquency," Phillips said. "But we know now it's really a family crisis, not an act of delinquency. This is not a crime, this is a crisis."

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