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States Reject Plans To Deny Licenses To School Dropouts

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After rapidly gaining wide support during the late 1980's, proposals to deny driver's licenses to school dropouts have hit a roadblock in several states.

So far this year, legislative committees in at least five states have rejected so-called "no school, no drive" bills.

A growing number of critics argue that such legislation, while politically attractive, is likely to have a limited impact on the dropout rate. And, they warn, the proposals may divert attention from other approaches to the issue.

Skeptics say the early figures available from West Virginia, the state that pioneered such laws, suggest that the threatened loss of driving privileges has induced only a modest number of students to remain in or return to school.

Many opponents are concerned that "no school, no drive" offers nothing but a "Band-Aid" solution to a complex problem, said Donna C. Rhodes, executive director of the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, which sponsors dropout-prevention programs across the country.

"If a student is having severe problems with school or with learning, this becomes merely a punisher," Ms. Rhodes maintained. "Schools should be offering incentives for success."

Still, driver-dropout laws retain considerable appeal as a low-cost method of attacking a seemingly intractable problem.

Ohio this year became the 10th state to adopt some version of the idea, and similar bills were awaiting signature last week by the Governors of Tennessee and Kentucky.

Some 20 states are considering such laws in the current legislative session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In addition, at least two states--California and South Carolina--may take the idea one step further.

In a new twist, lawmakers in those states are considering legislation that would force students not only to prove that they are attending school to obtain a driver's license, but also that they are making passing grades.

West Virginia Model

West Virginia's driver-dropout law, passed in 1988, has been a model for legislation in other states. It allows the state to deny a driver's license to all youths under age 18 who drop out of school, or who accumulate unexcused absences of more than 10 consecutive days or 15 days per semester.

Although an official evaluation of the law has not yet been completed, West Virginia officials contend that the measure has had some impact on the state's dropout rate.

Between September 1988, when the law went into effect, and January 1990, the state revoked 1,003 licenses under the dropout law, according to Bob Boggs, attendance coordinator for the state department of education.

Of those, 583 licenses were subsequently reinstated.

Among youths who got their licenses back, the largest number--172--did so because they had turned 18, and so were no longer covered by the law.

But dropouts who responded to the law in the hoped-for fashion--by re-enrolling in a school program--numbered only 163, according to figures reported by the state's public school districts.

Seventy-seven former students were found to qualify for an exemption from the law because they were forced to leave school for "circumstances beyond their control," such as needing to work full time to support a family. A handful of students said they had transferred out of state or into private schools; state officials have no mechanism for tracking such cases.

The state's average dropout rate, Mr. Boggs said, has fallen from 19.4 percent in the 1984-85 school year to 16.5 percent in 1988-89, when the law went into effect.

That decrease is due at least in part to the driver-dropout law, he argued.

"It isn't magic, and it's not the solution," he said. "But it does seem to cause some kids to reconsider leaving school."

Mr. Boggs noted, however, two problems with the law's implementation that the state board of educa4tion plans to address.

State officials suspect that some principals are simply not reporting to the Motor Vehicles Administration that their students have left school. Administrators may be doing so because they do not agree with the law, he suggested, or because they may not want to discourage troublesome students from dropping out.

The other problem area concerns the definitions of exemptions under the law, such as what constitutes "circumstances beyond a student's control." Educators have been confused about what situations qualify, Mr. Boggs noted.

Disappointed in Texas

In Texas, meanwhile, some educators maintain that lawmakers seem to believe they solved the state's dropout problem by passing a driver-dropout bill last year.

Because the year in which the law passed was also the year the state began tracking dropouts, there are no figures available on the effect of the law. According to the Texas Education Agency, 87,803 of the state's 1.4 million students dropped out in 1988-89.

Many of those dropouts may simply be driving without a legal license, one state official suggested.

Glynn Ligon, director of management information for the Austin school district and president of the Southwest Educational Research Association, said he had identified about 40 Austin students who stayed in school last year because of the law.

In addition, the district's dropout rate declined to 11 percent, after remaining for five years at 12 percent.

But that slight improvement is disappointing, Mr. Ligon suggested, in light of predictions by supporters of the law that dropout rates would improve by as much as 30 percent. The decline in the dropout rate could be as much the result of improved statistical information, he said, as of the new law itself.

"What we really need now is to focus on programs that identify kids at risk and how to keep them in school," Mr. Ligon contended. "I'm concerned that legislators are sitting back thinking, 'We solved that problem already.' This law is not going to solve the problem."

Bills Rejected

Legislators in Kansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Washington State have voted to kill "no school, no drive" proposals during the current session.

In each state, doubts were raised about the West Virginia model's effectiveness. And in states that are still considering similar proposals, the questions also remain.

In New Hampshire, for example, the Senate has approved a bill, but the measure ran into stiff opposition in the House Education Committee last month.

"What we learned from West Virginia is that kids may stay in school because they are afraid to lose their licenses, but then what have we done to improve that student's education?" said Representative Jacquelyn Domaingue, a staunch opponent on the committee.

"I just can't believe that the people of New Hampshire would want a so-called education bill like this that has nothing to do with education," she added.

'A Second Wave'?

Some national dropout experts, however, say there is a way to address critics' concerns.

Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, predicts that doubts about the West Virginia model will attract "a second wave" of states to what he argues is a more positive approach: linking a student's right to drive to good grades.

Although he agrees with supporters of the West Virginia program that a driver's license is a powerful incentive for a teenager, Mr. Smink contends that it must be used as part of a comprehensive approach focusing on improving educational opportunities for students before they leave school.

The West Virginia approach, he says, "is no way to run a railroad."

Mr. Smink argues that denying a dropout or chronic truant the right to drive merely punishes a youth who is already a victim of an ineffective education.

The approach urged by Mr. Smink may undergo a test in South Carolina. While the Senate last month passed a bill similar to West Virginia's, House members have rewritten the bill to give it a more "positive" approach.

Under the measure, youths would be able to obtain a license only if they could prove that they were in school or an alternative-education program, and making "satisfactory progress" toward graduation.

For 15- to 18-year-olds, licenses would expire each year. If a student was not making satisfactory progress, as determined by school officials, he or she would not be allowed to renew the license.

But if the grades of a student who had lost his or her license improved during the grading period, driving privileges could be reinstated.

The measure also would offer financial incentives to schools that experimented with new programs to retain potential dropouts.

In an effort to reduce paperwork, the plan would provide that a highway-department representative visit each school once a month to search computerized school records for students ineligible for license renewal.

Representative Ronald P. Townsend, chairman of the K-12 education subcommittee that rewrote the Senate bill, said the proposal seeks to improve the educational environment for those who stay in school.

"We felt that it would do more to encourage [students in the] lower grades to see the importance of staying in school by using the driver's license as an incentive to keep their grades up," he said.

The bill was scheduled for a second reading before the House education committee last week. If subseel15lquently approved by the full House, it must still be reconciled with the Senate version.

Mary J. Willis, executive assistant for education to Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., predicted that the debate will focus on the still-unknown cost of the proposal, as well as on questions about its specific benefit to children.

The legislation now awaiting the Governor's signature in Kentucky would also allow the state to revoke licenses of dropouts, truants, and students who failed more than four courses per semester.

California's Loophole

In California, a similar measure would require students to prove they are making "satisfactory academic progress."

The proposal was reintroduced this year by Senator Gary Hart, after Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed it last year.

Under the plan, schools would target potential dropouts and offer them a waiver from the law if they agreed to follow a specially developed "academic plan" designed by school officials.

The bill was approved last month by the Senate education committee.

But the bill has "a major loophole," according to Juvencia Romo, a staff aide to the Senate education panel. Because it sets academic standards only for 16-year-olds applying for the first time for a license, she noted, students could stay in school long enough to get their license, and then drop out of school.

Even so, she said, the goal of the bill is to target younger teenagers by providing an incentive to keep their grades up at least until they reach the minimum driving age.

Because of such "loopholes," however, Mr. Smink of the dropout-prevention center maintains that "no pass, no drive" legislation should be part of a comprehensive dropout-prevention package.

Such legislation, he argues, should:

Raise the mandatory school-attendance age to 18;

Require that youths under 18 renew their driver's licenses every year;

Create an "early warning" system for recognizing potential dropouts or truants;

Provide a second chance for dropouts through alternative-education programs;

Base license eligibility on students' school performance, rather than on their number of days absent from school;

Give schools extra funds to work with at-risk students, and reward schools that retain students; and

Evaluate the program each year to determine what is working.

Such laws, Mr. Smink emphasized, should never be seen as a solution to the dropout problem. But, he added, "if you have to do it, this is the way to go."

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