Compulsory attendance bill advances
By JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star | Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 6:05 pm
Senators debated two hours Wednesday on whether students should be forced to stay in school past age 16, if their parents are willing to give permission for them to drop out.
In the end, they advanced a bill (LB996) that would take away an exception to the current compulsory attendance law.
The bill will go to a second round of debate after the 29-17 vote, and perhaps an amendment that could, instead of taking away parents’ rights to allow their children to drop out, put some teeth into the law as it exists.
LB996 would delete the provision in the law that allows a parent or guardian to sign a notarized form that lets a student drop out of school at 16.
Senators had a list of reasons why students should stay in school — the dominant one being that, without high school diplomas they have little or no hope of finding decent jobs.
Not only does the dropout suffer, but each class of dropouts is responsible for a substantial drain on the community, the state and the country, said Sen. John Wightman of Lexington, who introduced the bill.
According to the U.S. Census, one in four people in Nebraska with less than a high school diploma live in poverty.
Nebraska law should send a clear message that children should stay in school and get their diplomas, Wightman said.
Sen. Greg Adams of York, a former teacher, questioned why the exception in the law allows parents to sign off on their kids dropping out.
“Parental rights, indeed, and we’re all respectful of that. Taken to its logical conclusion, then, why didn’t we say age 12, age 14?” he asked.
Omaha Sen. Gwen Howard said that when she was a caseworker for the state Department of Health and Human Services, many state wards were disenchanted with school and made every effort to slip out the back door when they were dropped off at school.
“But the state did not give permission for a child, a ward of the state, to drop out of school at age 16,” she said. “The state recognized the importance of that child staying in school and graduating.”
All the bill is asking, said Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, is that parents encourage their kids to go to school, with a multitude of options.
“The Nebraska way is to find a pathway for these children, not to give up,” he said. “This is the kind of bill that sets the course for our state.”
But some senators said the bill wouldn’t solve the problem.
The state Department of Education apparently has no data showing how many parents signed notarized releases allowing the nearly 2,000 students who dropped out in 2009-10 to do so.
It must be, said Lincoln Sen. Tony Fulton, that school administrators are allowing students to leave school at 16 and 17 without signed consent.
“We pay these administrators six-figure salaries, and they’re not doing their jobs,” he said.
Taking out the piece of the law that allows kids to drop out at 16 would not solve the problem if administrators are not now following the law, he said.
Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash said if the bill goes through, the workload of county attorneys goes up. And they’re already busy dealing with students who have excessive absenteeism.
The bill’s fiscal note says not allowing students to drop out –with no exceptions — would have only minimal financial impact. Coash and at least one other senator disagreed.
“There’s a cost (to) enforcing this,” he said.
In addition, teachers are stretched thin, he said. Children who are disruptive and don’t want to be in school pull them away from their mission.
Omaha Sen. Brenda Council said she would work with Wightman on an amendment that would help prevent students from dropping out, without taking away the exception for parent consent.
It would be modeled after an Indiana law that would require an “exit interview” for all students who want to drop out. The interview would be attended by the student, a parent, designated school employees and the principal.
Under the Indiana law, the student, parent and principal must agree in writing to the withdrawal and whether it is because of a financial hardship, and the student must work to help support the family or have an illness or a court order.
The written statement must say the student and parent understand that withdrawing is likely to reduce the student’s future earnings and increase the likelihood of being unemployed.
Wightman said the amendment would be similar to the Indiana law, but with some fine tuning.
Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or email@example.com– You can follow JoAnne’s tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.
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