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Obama's school dropout proposal would be a change for Minnesota

President Obama
REUTERS

During Wednesday night's State of the Union speech, President Obama proposed requiring every U.S. student stay in school until graduation or the age of 18.

"We also know that when students don't walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma," he said. "When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.  So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18."

Was this as meaningful as his exhortations to get to the bottom of the mortgage meltdown and reform the tax code?

Believe it or not, there's not universal agreement that it's a no-brainer to raise Minnesota's legal dropout threshold from 16 to 18, something that has been proposed repeatedly by state Sen. Chuck Wiger, a Maplewood DFLer who dropped out himself but ultimately returned.

Minnesota requires parental approval when 16 and 17 years olds quit school, a measure that is thought to decrease the rate. (Thirty states allow 16 and 17 year olds to drop out of school.)

There are lots of people who think that raising the age would create one more headache for overworked school administrators and further clog courts with the resulting truancy cases.

This leads, inevitably, to the question of how many kids actually drop out. High school completion rate statistics are among the most fungible numbers in the universe, and we'll just run the Cliff Notes version today.

Up until very recently, state officials claimed that some 91 percent of Minnesota teens graduated from high school. The details would take all day to impart, but the upshot is that switching over to the same method of measuring how many kids enter ninth grade and leave 12th that's used by many other states dropped that to about 75 percent.

So one fourth of kids drop out? No. about 5 percent do. The rest? Well, I told you this was fungible. The other fifth take more than four years — typical for special ed students and English-language learners — switch districts and subsequently elude the bean-counters or, and I use the official term here, "disappear."

What is more certain is that the cost of non-completion, however you count it, adds up to billions of dollars in lost wages over the lifetime of each graduating class. One study put the cost in lost wages to dropouts from Minnesota's class of 2008 alone at $4 billion.

There are strategies for graduating every kid — and sending all to college. But they are expensive, intensive and put one to mind about clichés involving cows and barn doors.

The most cost-effective place to prevent high school drop outs is — drum roll, please — before kindergarten. Study after study has concluded that kids who start school ready are more likely to keep up with their classmates and graduate.

The return on investment of every dollar spent on early childhood education is many-fold. And Obama, of course, recently recognized Minnesota's progress toward making this kind of care available to every child who needs it with a coveted Race to the Top pre-K stimulus grant.

Does that mean raising the dropout age wouldn't help? No, just that it is at best a small piece of a very complicated picture — a single line in a speech, if you will.

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