A dozen states are trying to keep children in school longer, from making kindergarten mandatory to raising the legal drop-out age. But it's not an easy sell.
Nevada is among the states this year that have or are considering proposals to stretch the compulsory attendance age. A bill that would require children in Nevada to start school at age 5 was met with such resistance that it was amended to age 6. Current state law sets the age at 7. The proposal is likely to go nowhere, as the Nevada legislature is set to adjourn Monday.
"If you're really concerned about kids dropping out, I don't think making kindergarten mandatory is really the heart of the issue," said Maggie England, who opposes the Nevada bill and wants to homeschool her three children.
Supporters admit that it wouldn't have much of an impact on enrollment numbers — and therefore school budgets. State officials estimate that about 95 percent of 6-year-olds are already learning in a formal capacity. What's to be gained, then, said Nevada Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, is the message that the state sometimes mocked as the "Mississippi of the West" is taking seriously its mission to turn things around in its glaringly deficient schools.
"I believe every child deserves a fair and equal shot at the American dream and that starts with school," said Diaz, the bill sponsor who is also a Las Vegas-area teacher. "I just think it's going to be a philosophical argument and we're just going to have to agree to disagree. As a teacher, and as an assemblywoman who represents a very at-risk population, this is fundamental."
The conversation among advocates is often tinged with this kind of anxiety about economic disparity. Their debate is centered as a moral imperative, extolling research on the importance of access to education, particularly for poor and disadvantaged children. Lately, education access has also seen a heightened, urgent interest on the national stage, ranging from college tuition to daycare and pre-kindergarten. The compulsory school age issue gained peak momentum when then-President Barack Obama in his 2012 State of the Union address urged states to raise the dropout age to 18.
In the past decade, both Republican and Democrat lawmakers have pushed for changes that would stretch the compulsory school attendance age, in some states requiring children to be in the classroom for as many as 13 years, from age 5 to 18. This year alone, at least six bills were proposed in Mississippi to expand the years that children must be in school. All of them have failed.
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Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, New Jersey, South Carolina, Montana, Mississippi and North Carolina also have considered the issue this year.
Nearly all states require free education to be offered by age 5, though in half the country, children don't have to start school until they're 6 years old. There's mandatory kindergarten in several states, while Pennsylvania and Washington don't require attendance until age 8. These state laws — some more than a century old — began as a tool to fight truancy. The status quo generally has been to allow teens to drop out at age 16.
The critics are advocates of homeschooling and limited-government who say that parents should have ultimate authority over their children, including when and how their kids are educated. Homeschoolers contend that the children who are not going to school are likely in unstructured programs at home that aren't registered with the local school districts and that not every child is suited for a paper-and-pencil classroom confinement.
"I can appreciate it and I can appreciate the need for it, but if it's available, I don't see why it needs to be mandatory for people like me because you're taking away my rights," said England, the mom against the Nevada bill. England is planning to teach her children at home near Reno because she said she doesn't have confidence in the local school district.
"Nevada is literally 50th in the country for school so I wouldn't say we're doing it right, right now," England said.
Grover "Russ" Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families says the flaw in this movement is its emphasis on quantity, not quality, with lawmakers too frequently operating on their gut. The education policy expert says compulsory laws can produce some small effects but it's not quite the grand vision lawmakers push. His research has found that raising it to 18 doesn't actually increase the graduation rate.
"It's intuitive in the sense that you would think if school does us any good, more of it would do us even more good," Whitehurst said. "Nothing seems irrational. It's not that it's a bad thing to do. But if you expect to see graduation rates zooming, you'll likely be disappointed."
That seems to be the case in South Dakota, which has expanded the mandatory school age on both ends. In 2006 and 2007, lawmakers approved bills that made the compulsory age 5 to 18.
The state's secretary of education, Melody Schopp, said the graduation rate is about the same but said the total number of dropouts is down. She said the law helped incentivize schools to create new career-focused programs to keep older teens engaged. So while not everyone gets a diploma in four years, many of those who were likely to leave school with nothing are now getting GEDs or certifications to do other kinds of jobs. And she's also not bothered by the lack of measurable improvements academically for the younger children who have gone through the mandatory kindergarten programs.
"Being fed and kept warm. School is where there is a caring adult," Schopp said. "There's other benefits you can't measure on an academic scale that are really important to me."