Driven To Learn

By Robert C. Johnston — January 01, 1997 3 min read

Eight years after West Virginia passed the nation’s first law requiring a minor 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 climbed on the bandwagon last fall, 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,” says Jim Parks, spokesman for the Kentucky education department. The state is one of 15 that now link driver’s licenses with school attendance and performance. And many others are interested, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

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, says Kathy Christie, coordinator of the ECS information clearinghouse.

In Idaho, where 20 percent of 8th graders do not finish the 12th grade, minors must be enrolled in high school if they want to get a driver’s license, thanks to a measure approved by lawmakers last February. “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,” says Republican state Senator Gary Schroeder.

But Tennessee lawmakers found that a similar law in their state was not enough. “There were students who decided to attend just to keep their licenses,” says Gary Nixon, a policy analyst with the state school board. “We called them drop-ins. They came but didn’t do anything.” Beginning this year, minors must also pass half their classes with at least a D average to get or retain a license.

States also are under new federal pressure to deny licenses to youngsters who use drugs or alcohol. In an October 19 radio address, President Clinton said he will seek legislation requiring minors to pass a drug test before receiving a driver’s license. “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,” the president later wrote in a memo.

But will teenagers change their behavior to get a driver’s license? If they think like Patrick Valentine, a senior at Glencliff Comprehensive High School in Nashville, Tennessee, the answer is yes. “Students need their licenses to get around,” Patrick says, “and making good grades to do that is something that should be done.”

Still, West Virginia’s pioneering 8-year-old law has barely dented the dropout rate. Minors cannot get a driver’s license if they drop out or have 10 consecutive unexcused absences or 15 such absences in one semester. “The kids know that law better than any law and know the ramifications of missing class,” says Therese Wilson, the state’s director of student services.

Even so, the dropout rate only slipped one-tenth of one percentage point—from 17.4 percent to 17.3 percent—between 1988 and 1994.

Skeptics argue that simply restricting drivers’ licenses will not keep students from dropping out or change other negative behavior. “The issue certainly captures the politician’s eye,” says Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University in South Carolina. “But the people making it operational in a school setting say it has not been successful.”

Clinton’s drug-testing proposal has received similar reviews. “The best part of the president’s proposal is that he’s saying drug use is not acceptable,” says Mathea Falco, president of Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research institute in Washington, D.C. But she wonders what will happen to students who test positive: Will they just be denied a driver’s license, or will they also get treatment?