By Jamey Dunn
Following a call to action that President Barack Obama made in his State of the Union Address, Gov. Pat Quinn today proposed raising the dropout age for Illinois high school students.
“When students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I'm proposing that every state -- every state -- requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18,” Obama said in his address before Congress on Tuesday.
In Illinois, students can drop out at 17. According the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states allow students to drop out of school before they turn 18. Quinn plans to propose a bill during his State of the State address next week to change the age in Illinois, and he hopes to see it passed within the year. “Every child in Illinois deserves a quality education that will serve them throughout their lives,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “The best way to ensure that our children have the chance to achieve and succeed is to make sure they stay in school long enough to earn their diploma.”
Illinois high school students could drop out at age 16 until lawmakers voted to increase the age to 17 in 2005. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, the statewide dropout rate in 2004 was 4 percent, and the rate today is 2.7 percent. “I would anticipate if it was raised to 18, we would see another decrease in the dropout rate,” said Matt Vanover, spokesperson for the ISBE.
Vanover said that moving the age up from 16 made a difference. “You get the driver’s license, and all of sudden you think, 'I don’t need school, and I don’t want to stick around for two years,’” he said. “Two years is an eternity in a teenager’s mind.” He said that the closer that students get to being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the more likely they are to stick it out and graduate.
Vanover said that without a high school diploma, young adults have little chance at finding a job that can support a family. “Anything that we can do to ensure that students are going to be in school, we’re going to be for it. We know that if you do drop out, the chances to succeed in life just plummet.”
Charles McBarron, spokesperson for the Illinois Education Association, said that the teachers union supports the concept of raising the dropout age. However, he said that may not be enough to ensure that students get a solid education. “It probably requires more than just keeping them in the building. We have to find way of engaging them.”
Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, agreed. “If it was as easy as Obama said, it would be wonderful,” said Eddy, who is a school superintendent in Hutsonville. “To accomplish something with it, we’re going to really have to look at what we do to provide students with a meaningful experiences.”
Eddy said that vocational courses or workplace readiness programs might connect with students who are not succeeding in a traditional academic setting. “To serve the needs of all students, we do have to understand that some students aren’t going to college.”
He said that in some areas where dropout rates are highest, students may face challenges that schools cannot easily overcome, such as homelessness or violence. Eddy added that levels of truancy enforcement vary throughout the state, and an increase in the dropout age would require consistent enforcement to be effective. “It’s really hard for the school to be the police, too.”