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Obama proposal to raise school dropout age falls flat

Dropout Age_Pata.jpg

May 11, 2012: In this photo, Springfield Southeast High School students are seen walking through the hallway while changing classes in Springfield, Ill. (AP)

President Barack Obama's call for states to raise the minimum age at which students can drop out of high school seems about as popular as a homework assignment on Friday afternoon.

Since the president urged the change in his State of the Union speech in January, only one state has raised its dropout age to 18, and that won't take effect for five years.

Even legislators in Obama's home state of Illinois wouldn't go along with his proposal, despite an endorsement from the governor. They quickly dumped the issue into the limbo of a special study commission after it became clear there wasn't enough money to support it.

One of the biggest concerns is the cost. If states simply force unwilling students to spend an extra year or two in school, many teens could stay until they are 18 but still leave without a diploma because of poor grades. And extra counseling and remedial courses to help are expensive.

"Where are we going to get the money?" asked state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Chicago Democrat who heads the Illinois Senate's education committee.

Twenty-nine states let students leave school before they turn 18. Obama urged lawmakers to require them to stay in school until graduation or age 18.

"When students aren't allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma," the president said in the speech.

But since then, only Maryland has approved a plan to raise the dropout age, first to 17 in 2015 and then to 18 in 2017.

At least 13 states considered legislation this year to raisef 636,000 students. Legislative staff said they could not reliably estimate the cost to the state if those students were kept in school until 18.

But one group has taken a stab at calculating the cost of allowing those students to drop out. The Chicago-based Alternative Schools Network estimates that each dropout costs Illinois a net lifetime average of about $70,000, while high school graduates contribute a net amount of about $236,000.

For some Illinois lawmakers, the idea of raising the dropout age isn't even worth sending to a commission for study. Sen. David Luechtefeld, a former teacher and high school coach, said he's never talked to a school administrator who thinks raising the age is a good idea.

"Most of the time," Luechtefeld said, "a kid who doesn't want to be in school is a problem for the kids who want to be there."