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Colo. Bill Would Kill Compulsory Age for School

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A staple of American education may be put to the test in January when Colorado lawmakers consider a bill that would no longer require children to attend school.

Every state has a compulsory-attendance law, but Colorado lawmakers studying the state's juvenile code this fall started asking themselves why.

A citizens' coalition had recommended giving truant officers more authority to detain absent students and make parents more responsible for their children's behavior.

But some lawmakers began to look at other options. "Instead, we said, `Why isn't the compulsory-education law also on the table?"' said Rep. Russell George, a Republican from the mountain town of Rifle.

"Why do we enforce it? What price do we pay? Why should schools increasingly be places for detention?" he said. "These are things that needed to be discussed."

The debate that is expected when the full legislature convenes early next year would make Colorado the first state in 40 years to formally consider killing the requirement that children attend school.

Over the past century, states have differed on the ages at which children must attend school, and some of the laws have been altered after challenges by groups that advocate home schooling. Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia briefly revoked their attendance mandates in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 school-desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

But an effort to no longer require school attendance would mark an about-face from the trend over the past decade for states to require that children stay in school even longer.

And while Colorado lawmakers say they are simply hanging the issue out for debate, the suggestion has sparked an interest among observers across the country.

Opponents of compulsory education argue that schools spend too much energy and too many resources on students who don't want to be in class and who disrupt other students' progress. But those who defend the requirement say eliminating it would be giving up on children who need help and who may be too young to know what's best for them.

"I don't think I want to advocate a repeal of compulsory education," Rep. George of Colorado said. "We just didn't think that any law was so sacred that it shouldn't stand the test."

The `Stay In' Problem

Colorado requires that children between 7 and 16 attend school. In other states, children must start school from as early as age 5 to as late as 8. All states require that children remain in school until at least age 16--some as late as age 18. (See chart below.)

                        School Age

Following is a summary of states' age requirements for school 
attendance as of March 1994.

              Age               Number of States

              5 to 16                3
              5 to 17                2
              5 to 18                2
              6 to 16               13
              6 to 18                6
              7 to 16               16
              7 to 17                5
              7 to 18                1
              8 to 17                1
              8 to 18                1

Source: Education Commission of the States

The legislation being drafted in Colorado would let students and parents decide about school attendance--an idea that has not gained wide currency in state legislatures but has been debated by educators, researchers, and politicians for years.

Many people have said that while the United States has focused on the dropout problem, "a closer look may suggest the problem in education is the `stay in' problem," according to William H. Wise, the assistant principal of Columbian High School in Tiffin, Ohio.

Last year, Mr. Wise studied 995 9th, 10th, and 11th graders at his school and found that there was only a small correlation between attendance and students' grade-point averages.

Attendance in school does not necessarily lead to learning, he concluded in a research paper, and scarce resources should be reserved for those with the motivation and ability to benefit from them.

The debate in Colorado is a welcome forum for home schoolers, who have long contested compulsory-schooling laws and have successfully pressured several legislatures not to raise the compulsory-attendance age from 16 to 18.

Scott W. Somerville, a lawyer for the Home School Legal Defense Association in Paeonian Springs, Va., said his group's opposition to the regulations is not that they make it difficult for parents to choose to home school their children. Rather, he said, schools sometimes find absentee children so hard to keep track of that they simply classify them as being home schooled.

"Let home schoolers be home schoolers and let truants be truants, and don't mess up our reputation," Mr. Somerville said.

A Costly Proposal

Opponents of mandatory schooling also argue that the United States is the only country that treats education as a requirement rather than a privilege. But supporters say the laws send an important message to children about the importance of education.

"We recognize that you can't adequately enforce compulsory-education laws, but that shouldn't be a reason to abolish them," said Janice Chmela, the editor of the journal of the International Association of Pupil Personnel Workers in Long Beach, Ind., which represents about 400 truant officers and social workers.

"If kids don't go to school, you're going to pay a lot more money on the other end" if dropouts end up on welfare or in prison, she said.

According to the National Dropout Prevention Center in Clemson, S.C., 80 percent of prison inmates are high school dropouts. While it costs about $5,000 a year to send students to school, it costs five times that amount to incarcerate someone for a year.

Moreover, compulsory-attendance laws enable schools to track down children who may be having problems. "If you don't have the law that says there's something wrong, then nobody recognizes the problem," Ms. Chmela said.

But repealing compulsory-education laws in the United States would not be an easy task. Lawmakers in Wisconsin this year passed a bill that would have lowered the compulsory-attendance age from 18 to 16--for many of the same reasons cited by legislators in Colorado. But the plan was not well received, and Gov. Tommy G. Thompson vetoed it.

Most states had compulsory-education laws in place by the early 1900s, with Massachusetts leading the way in 1852.

According to historians, many enacted the laws to bolster limitations on child labor. But students have always found ways to slip through the cracks, leading to a range of techniques that many schools still use now: school-census data, child-accounting records, school social workers, and financial aid based on average daily attendance.

Overhauling compulsory-education laws "would probably severely impact schools' funding base," among other effects, said Jay Smink, the director of the National Dropout Prevention Center.

Mr. Somerville of the home-schooling group, said: "My guess is that this is the beginning, not the end of the conversation."

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