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Guest Editorial: Give students a good reason to graduate

When schools lose a student to the streets it’s a compounded loss that multiplies its way through society. When students drop out, they limit their potentials and fall prey to higher divorce rates, lower incomes and fewer opportunities. They often become part of the cycle of poverty, which then traps their children. The challenge is to figure out how to keep the students in school.
The Vermont Senate is considering legislation that would require students to stay in school until they graduate, or until they reach the age of 18. Current law sets the limit at 16 years of age. The proposal would adjust the age requirement in half-year increments, thus giving schools the necessary time to adjust.
The Vermont Department of Education has come out in opposition to the bill. The thrust of the department’s opposition is that it doesn’t work to mandate attendance; students have to be given a good enough reason to stay. Schools need to develop new approaches to engage those who don’t connect with the more traditional school environment.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, is one of the sponsors of the bill and he thought the department’s opposition was “odd.” His response was that both should be done. Schools should do more to accommodate those students who need help, and the law should be changed to keep the students in school.
Mullin labeled the department as “protectors of the status quo.”
The senator suggested that hearings on the bill would be an opportunity to explore the pros and cons of the proposed legislation, as well as a chance to consider ways to allow high school students to take college-level classes for credit.
The intent is spot on. We need to reduce our dropout rate. We need to figure out new and better ways to connect with at-risk students. And we need to move heaven and earth to devise ways to allow high school students take college-level classes for credit.
Although the Department of Education is correct that it doesn’t work just to raise the age limit, it’s just flat wrong in opposing the limit. If students know the age requirement, most will adjust their thinking accordingly. It may not work in every single instance, but if it works in most we’re ahead. Keeping students in school, versus allowing them to roam untended, has strong collateral value as well. Ask any family court judge.
The issue is so fundamentally important that it even made its way to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. He asked that every state make the pledge to raise the age limit to 18. The president understands the obvious; the lack of a high school education is one of the great dividers in American society. It has to be challenged.
In Vermont, we’re more fortunate than most states. We have one of the highest graduation rates in the nation, but we’re still losing roughly 15 percent of our students before graduation. As good as that is, comparatively, we also have one of the lowest “aspiration” rates in the nation. We’re right at the bottom in terms of those who graduate from high school and then enroll in college the following fall. Looking out a decade or so, that may be the single biggest challenge to the state’s continued prosperity. Modern-day economies will not thrive fed on abbreviated levels of education.
There is a strong hint of frustration in the legislative proposal that Mullin and others are considering. Part of the subtext of the legislation being considered is that things need to move forward and right now, nothing is. The Department of Education may have different thoughts as to how to proceed, but they are largely unknown, which is what must have prompted Mullin to label the department as “protecting the status quo.” When the committee begins receiving testimony, the department should be asked to defend itself, to show how it is driving change. What are the ideas that the department thinks are essential to raise educational outcomes? What does the department think about the governor’s pledge to push for school choice at the high school level, with the money following the student? How does the relationship change between higher education and high school to allow students to take college-level courses for credit? Should college loan forgiveness initiatives be considered? Should even younger, more expansive pre-K programs be considered?
Mullin et al. don’t hear much discussion on any of these issues, which, given the amount we spend on each student, is immensely frustrating. From Mullin’s point of view, the lack of public direction is tantamount to protecting what’s in place.
That is why the Legislature is considering another vital piece of legislation at the same time: making the commissioner of education a governor-appointed position and part of his cabinet.
It does not work to have the Department of Education working in a vacuum. It does not work to have the governor’s administration pushing in one direction, but with minimal authority to move the department along with it. It does not work to spend as much as we spend, with the mediocre results we get, and not have a better grasp as to how we are to improve and who will force that improvement.
Tropical Storm Irene may be what dominates the headlines this legislative session; but how we deal with the educational process in Vermont is how we best deal with the “storm” coming our way if we don’t.
Emerson Lynn
St. Albans Messenger

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