JEFFERSON CITY - In an effort to increase Missouri's high school graduation rate, some legislators are pushing to keep kids in school longer, even if it means threatening to take away their driver's licenses.
Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon, is sponsoring a bill that requires children to attend school until they are 18 years old. The bill also allows school districts to set up alternative schools for those children who are disruptive in class.
Another bill, which is being worked on in a House committee, would also raise the mandatory school attendance age. But this bill, sponsored by Rep. Craig Hosmer, D-Springfield, seeks a stricter enforcement of the mandatory attendance by taking away the driver's licenses of dropouts.
Under Hosmer's proposal any child who drops out of school before age 18 would not be able to hold a driver's license until they turned 18, returned to school or earned their GED.
Hosmer said he hopes this will provide a greater incentive to high school students to stay in school.
"Kids understand the prestige thing with the licenses," Hosmer said.
More than 20 percent of Missouri students will drop out before graduating, according to the Missouri National Education Association. Hosmer said it is dangerous that so many young people are making such an important decision at an early age.
"If you go work at Taco Bell or Hardee's at age 16 then that's great. You can pay for a car, got out on the town," Hosmer said. "But then when you're 35 and you have a family, that's just not sufficient."
But some lawmakers question the wisdom of linking dropping out of high school with the privilege of having a driver's license.
Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, said taking away licenses from early dropouts unfairly penalizes students in rural areas.
"Where we really need help is in the inner city areas," Caskey said. "People who drop out in those areas don't have cars. The only areas punished are rural ones."
Sen. Bill Clay, D-St. Louis, said he has a different reason for opposing the driver's license provision.
"If you take away the kids' licenses, you make it a hardship on their parents," Clay said. "Kids can understand the law too. If we raise the age, they can still be locked up for truancy."
Another point of debate is whether forcing students to go to school will disrupt classrooms.
"Educators get uptight when you talk about dealing with kids who don't want to be there," Russell said.
The Senate bill attempts to deal with this problem by allowing school boards to establish alternative schools, something Gov. Mel Carnahan has said he wants to focus on this legislative session.
Without such alternative school provisions, the bill would hurt the learning environment in classrooms, said Bob Quinn, legislative director of the Missouri National Education Association.
"Until we get some of the safe schools legislation passed, we wouldn't support legislation to keep kids in school until their 18," Quinn said. "Right now all this does is put [a disruptive student] right back in the classroom where neither he, the teacher or the other students want him to be."