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States Consider Denying Dropouts Right to Drive

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Some state lawmakers believe they have found a promising dropout-prevention tool tucked away in teenagers' wallets.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, an unprecedented number of states this year considered bills that would deny that uniquely American rite of passage--the acquisition of a driver's license--to those teenagers who would rather be on the road than in the classroom.

"People are just looking for ways to keep kids in schools, and this is an idea that caught on," said Karen Walker, a research analyst for the ncsl She said West Virginia officials last spring were the first to call her seeking information on the topic. "Then I was amazed at how many other people [from other states] called and asked me about it."

In June, West Virginia became the first state to adopt the idea, mandating that teenagers be enrolled in school to qualify for a license and requiring the suspension of licenses for those who leave school before age 18.

Wisconsin lawmakers last spring gave their state judges new authority to suspend a teenager's driver's license for 30 to 90 days as a punishment for truancy.

And last week, lawmakers in California--a state with a well-established love affair with the car--overwhelmingly approved a measure that would deny the right to drive to teenagers who drop out or are expelled from school for certain crimes.

Similar proposals were raised but failed to win approval during this year's legislative sessions in Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Virginia. Bills were rejected by lawmakers in Illinois and North Carolina in 1987, and a 1986 measure in Kentucky also failed to pass.

'No Pass, No Drive'

According to Ms. Walker of the ncsl, the proposals under consideration appear to trace their history to Texas's landmark "no pass, no play" law. That measure, which was adopted in 1984 and has been replicated in dozens of states and school districts, requires high-school students to earn passing grades in order to compete in athletics and other extracurricular activities.

"It's a prohibitive measure to improve academic performance or, in this case, just keep them in school," she noted. "People are looking at things that are important to kids and trying to figure out how to use them."

Delegate Patrick Murphy of West Virginia said such concerns were on his mind when he introduced the driver's license bill in his state this year.

'More Immediate Consequence'

"I guess we're playing ball in [the students'] court," he said. "Education should be able to rationally argue its own merits. But next Friday's game is what is on a lot of kids' minds. I was trying to bring a more immediate consequence" to a student's decision to drop out of school.

Mr. Murphy acknowledged that withholding driver's licenses would not cure West Virginia's dropout problem. However, he noted, in a fi4nancially strapped state such as his, resources for education are limited.

"I was trying in a cost-effective way to keep students in school by withholding something that means a lot to them, and that is the privilege of driving," he said. "I thought that, for the cost of a couple of extra clerks in the motor-vehicle department, we could retain some students."

In Wisconsin, lawmakers say their new law was motivated by the desire to provide judges with more tools to help combat truancy.

"What we found was that judges so often had little in the way of discretion over something the child values," said Representative Calvin Potter, chairman of the House education committee. "One of the universal values is the driver's license among young people."

Questions Raised

Although most state officials support the goal of the so-called "no pass, no drive" measures, some question whether the penalty may be too harsh and whether the programs can be administered effectively.

Officials in the West Virginia department of motor vehicles, for example, already have voiced concern about how the suspension system in their state would work.

And the agency's lawyer has noted that a teenager would turn 18 by the time he or she exhausts the department's appeal process, thus automatically qualifying for a license.

During debate on the measure, some lawmakers questioned whether the proposal was too draconian, noting that some students leave school in order to support their families.

To address such concerns, the bill was amended to allow school officials to waive the penalty for those teenagers who drop out due to circumstances "beyond their control."

'Not Easy, but Valid'

Such concerns in other states prompted lawmakers either to defeat similar proposals or let them die in committee.

In an editorial urging California lawmakers to reject the measure linking licenses to good behavior, the Los Angeles Times questioned whether young adults who had few qualms about committing felonies would worry about driving without a license.

And in Arizona, legislators questioned whether districts would open themselves to lawsuits if they failed to notify the motor-vehicles division that a student's license should be suspended and the student was later involved in an accident.

Such arguments, however, do not persuade state Representative Bill Hammond of Texas, who says he will introduce a bill in the session that begins next January denying licenses to those 18 and under who are not in school or are failing to make adequate progress toward graduation.

"Any sort of idea like this, which is fairly radical, is difficult to enact," he said. "It's not an easy idea but I think it is a valid one."

"When their buddies are telling them to drop out," he added, "this will give them something to fall back on."

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