State Journal

June 20, 2001 1 min read

Compelling Debate

A state senator in Michigan wants to keep teenagers in school until they turn 18 or graduate, two years longer than the state now mandates.

Senate Bill 522, introduced June 5 by Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith, would repeal a state law allowing students to leave high school when they are 16.

“It’s shortsighted of the state to allow 16-year-olds to decide they are mature enough to make the decision to drop out of school, particularly when we know that without additional education, kids are rendered non-competitive for jobs and other opportunities,” the Democrat said in an interview last week.

The proposal, which has died in committee during two previous legislative sessions, would allow students 16 or older to combine work with school if necessary, and would permit those who have difficulty in traditional high schools to enroll in alternative schools or vocational education programs, Ms. Smith said.

The measure has the support of Michigan’s Democratic schools Superintendent Thomas D. Watkins Jr., who included it late last month on his list of “30 ideas in 30 days for education.”

But Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, opposes the idea, contending that it’s more productive to focus the state’s resources on developing strong skills in elementary schoolchildren than to force unwilling teenagers to stay in high school.

“Our idea is that we want to catch them earlier and make sure they can read and function in school,” said Susan Shafer, the governor’s press secretary. “If a 16-year-old decides he doesn’t want to be there, are you going to make that kid sit there for two more years and disrupt the class and make it hard for the teacher?”

Michigan is one of 32 states that require children to attend school until age 16, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The rest set the cutoff at 17 or 18. And Michigan is one of seven to have considered raising the compulsory-education age during the 2001 legislative session, the report says. New Mexico raised the age from 16 to 17.

—Catherine Gewertz

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week