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15 States Link School Status, Student Driving

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Eight years after West Virginia passed the nation's first law requiring minors to be in school to get a driver's license, policymakers are rediscovering driving as a motivational carrot for teenagers.

Though it remains unclear whether such laws work, President Clinton joined the bandwagon last month, saying he wants states to require minors to pass a drug test before getting a driver's license.

"It's not a magic potion of any kind, just another tool teachers and schools can use to motivate students," Jim Parks, the spokesman for the Kentucky education department, said of the use of licenses as a student incentive. Most minors in Kentucky must meet minimum attendance and academic thresholds to drive.

Fifteen states now link driver's licenses with school attendance and performance, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. In addition, the ECS reported that "no pass, no drive" bills were introduced during the most recent legislative sessions of 14 states. Four of the bills passed, six were killed, and seven await committee action.

A lot of states are willing to try the approach because denying licenses to dropouts or students who fail to meet certain academic standards is an inexpensive deterrent, said Kathy Christie, the coordinator of the ECS information clearinghouse. And many states already track attendance and grades for sports eligibility.

In Idaho, where 20 percent of 8th graders do not finish the 12th grade, minors must now be in high school if they want to get a driver's license.

"Those of us on the education committee very sincerely believe that the best thing we can do for teens is make sure they get a high school education," said Republican state Sen. Gary J. Schroeder, the chairman of that committee in the Idaho Senate. The legislature passed the state's no-pass, no-drive law in February.

Bills in other states this year sought to strengthen existing laws.

  • Ohio students who fail 9th grade proficiency tests would not be allowed to get a driver's license under a pending amendment. Current statutes prohibit minors who are not enrolled in school from holding a driver's license.
  • Virginia lawmakers killed a bill that would have required minors to prove they finished 70 percent of their homework to get a license but passed one requiring students younger than 15 1/2 to prove they were in good academic standing to get a learner's permit. The rule already applies to minors seeking a driver's license.
  • Tennessee lawmakers found their state's law requiring students to be in high school to get their licenses was not enough.

"There were students who decided to attend just to keep their licenses," Gary Nixon, a policy analyst with the state school board, said. "We called them drop-ins. They came but didn't do anything."

Beginning this year, minors in Tennessee must also pass half of their classes with at least a D average to get or retain a license.

Clinton Weighs In

States also are under new federal pressure to link driver's licenses to drug and alcohol use.

In an Oct. 19 radio address, Mr. Clinton said he will seek legislation requiring minors to pass a drug test before receiving a driver's license. ("Drug Test Before Road Test, Clinton Says," Oct. 30, 1996.)

White House officials have 90 days to come up with a strategy for the bill.

Mr. Clinton also called attention to a new law that requires states to pass legislation allowing judges to take away the driver's licenses of anyone under 21 who is caught driving with alcohol in his or her system. Federal highway funds will be withheld from states that do not comply within two years.

"Denial of driving privileges to those who engage in illegal drug use can be a powerful incentive to stay away from and off drugs, particularly for teenagers," Mr. Clinton said in a memo on his proposal.

How Effective?

But will teenagers change their behavior to get a driver's license?

If they all think like Patrick Valentine, a senior at Glencliff Comprehensive High School in Nashville, Tenn., the answer might be yes.

"Students need their licenses to get around, and making good grades to do that is something that should be done," Mr. Valentine said.

And West Virginia's director of student services, Therese Wilson, said of her state's pioneering legislation: "The kids know that law better than any law and know the ramifications of missing class."

West Virginia minors cannot have a driver's license if they drop out or have 10 consecutive unexcused absences or 15 such absences in one semester, she said.

But despite a dip in the dropout rate after the law first took effect there, West Virginia's 17.4 percent dropout rate in 1988 was only slightly higher than the 1994 rate of 17.3 percent.

Patrick Murphy, the West Virginia teacher and former state legislator who proposed the dropout measure there, called the law a catalyst for looking at ways to deal with at-risk students. But, he added, "some schools use it just to get rid of problem students and not to the fullest potential."

Skeptics say that simply restricting driver's licenses will not keep students from dropping out or change other negative behavior.

"The issue certainly captures the politician's eye," said Jay Smink, the executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. "But the people making it operational in a school setting say it has not been successful."

For example, school administrators can fail to report attendance records to state motor vehicle departments. And students who return to school are not likely to succeed unless their academic setting is changed, Mr. Smink added.

In Florida, legislators allowed their 6-year-old school-attendance mandate to expire this year. State officials said the law was considered ineffective, in part, because it was not uniformly enforced.

And in Ohio, where 14,364 driver's licenses were suspended last year under that state's dropout laws, officials still doubt local commitment.

"Some schools are complying with the law, and some schools are not," said Anita Wilson, the supervisor for Ohio's driver education program. "Locally, where you know families, principals don't want to apply it."

Mr. Clinton's drug-testing proposal likewise gets mixed reviews.

"The best part of the president's proposal is that he's saying drug use is not acceptable," said Mathea Falco, the president of Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research institute in Washington.

But she asked what will happen to students who test positive: Will they just be denied a driver's license or will they get treatment?

"If marijuana is the most widely used drug, presumably they would not smoke before the test," she said. "You'll catch people who are truly addicted."

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