Friday, April 1, 2011

Bill proposes to leave high school dropouts idle in the streets

Again, South Carolina lawmakers propose to criminalize poverty and the poor judgment that stems often from few options. Consider the plight of teenagers growing up in poverty -- this isn't difficult; there are hundreds of thousands of them -- who see one big difference between attending high school classes Monday through Friday and holding down a "right-to-work-for-less" job at a fast food restaurant or a local body shop: a paycheck. All they need is a set of wheels and gas money.

Not so fast.

South Carolina legislators are debating whether to suspend driving licenses of students who drop out of school. Educators in the area are split on the bill’s effectiveness. The bill, which was considered Wednesday in a House subcommittee, provides for suspending the license of a teen who leaves school, is expelled or accumulates more than seven unexcused absences.

Schools would be required to report the absences of 15- to 17-year-olds to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Thirty seconds of an internet search tells me that

S.C. compulsory education code sets the age at 17. Exceptions in the code allows a minor to leave school at age 16 with approval from the court of jurisdiction. (S.C. Code, Education, Article 1, Sect: 59-65-10(A) to Sect: 59-65-30 (C)

So even sixteen-year-olds can legally leave school enrollment under current state law, but the new proposal would leave that sixteen-year-old cooling his heels on the porch or driving without a license.

And does anyone else share my view that schools and school districts have enough to do without reporting student absences to the Department of Motor Vehicles? The same lawmakers who shout so loudly against a "nanny state" seem to love making schools play the nanny when it suits them.

Devon Smith, principal of Crescent High School in Iva-based Anderson School District 3, said he thought the proposal didn’t meet the needs of the student.

“It’s just not nearly as simple as the legislators think. There are a lot of other issues surrounding why kids drop out of school,” Smith said. “What if that child has to work to support the family? How are they going to do that if they lose their license?”

Smith said his school’s dropout rate, or the number of students the school cannot account for at the end of their senior year, is 3.5 percent, or about seven students. The bill would not help students as much as it would hinder schools, he said.

Ralph Dillingham, principal of the Anderson County Alternative School, said the move sounded like another layer of bureaucracy.

“I think the idea is good to try to encourage kids in school,” Dillingham said. “But the enforcement of that is just another something the schools would be required to do. That would be my only concern. Is it the right place to try to enforce this? It seems to me the burden for supervising this would fall to schools but there wouldn’t be any more resources to oversee it with.”

The Anderson County Alternative School provides a middle school and high school setting for students across the county who have been expelled and chose to attend the school.

Dillingham said he was not familiar with the particulars of the bill, but felt it would be unfair to penalize students like those in his school who are technically expelled, but are attending school.

I want students to stay in school and graduate, too. But I've known plenty of students whose family suffered when a single parent suffered an illness, had no insurance, and lost a job in our right-to-work-for-less state. Such students, even at age 15 or 16, find that budget cuts to public assistance mean the Hamburger Helper doesn't stretch very far, and that even a menial job at McDonald's comes with perks like meals. Who's the criminal? We, who agree to cutting holes in the social safety net we pretend to hold up for the poorest and weakest among us, or the teenagers who choose a paying job over remedial reading?

Difficult question. But I'm not ready to criminalize poverty just yet.

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