A bid to keep students from dropping out of school before they turn 18 faltered Monday amid bipartisan concerns that all it would do is mean more disruptive kids in school.
Rep. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, told members of the House Education Committee that existing law lets students quit the moment they turn 16, with or without parental permission and regardless of whether they have a diploma. The same is true once a student completes tenth grade, regardless of age.
Dial said that leaves parents powerless to force their youngsters to stay in school. And he said HB 2168 could improve the state's low graduation rate.
But Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, said it's not that simple.
"What happens to that student who, by age 16, doesn't really want to be there?'' he asked.
Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, who has served on a school board, said this kind of mandate to force youngsters to stay in school ignores the potential effect.
"There are kids that are disruptive to the classroom environment,'' Meyer told Dial. "So if we force these kids to be there, how is that going to work?''
Dial said the key is making schools more interesting and responsive to individual student needs so they don't want to drop out, whether it's special programs for a gifted student who does not feel sufficiently challenged or finding the resources for a youngster who is struggling.
Anyway, Dial said, schools have "administrative actions'' they could take to deal with disruptive students.
"So we expel them?'' Meyer responded.
Dial conceded having expulsion as the ultimate way of handling may not be the best solution. So he has promised to recraft the measure -- and make it acceptable to sufficient members to allow it to gain approval.
And Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, who chairs the committee, agreed to let Dial bring the measure back.
But given the level of opposition, he has an uphill battle.
Dial said raising the dropout rate from 16 simply brings education law into line with everything else.
He pointed out that, in general, parents are liable for the acts committed by juveniles. And they also are required to approve medical procedures for anyone younger than 18.
Now, he said, youngsters can simply tell school officials on their 16th birthday that they're not coming back -- and the parents would never know.
"That kid could be out there destroying some home and then you could be the person thinking that kid, during those hours, is in school and you are going to be notified by the school'' if he or she is not attending, Dial said.
But Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, told Dial he was not convinced that raising the dropout age really did anything to empower parents.
Dial does have some support among Education Committee members.
Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said businesses deciding whether to move to a state look at the dropout rate as an indicator of the quality of the education offered. And she noted Dial's testimony about the laws in other states which are economic competitors: Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and California all require students to stay in school until they turn 18 or gradate first.
"We sort of set Arizona at a disadvantage by allowing students to opt out of education earlier,'' Carter said. And she said businesses, reviewing dropout rates, won't necessarily realize that Arizona, with its different law, can't be directly compared with those other states.
One change Dial promised to make to get the bill through committee is to leave intact existing law which allows students to drop out once they turn 14 if they have permission of a parent and have a job.
Jennifer Loredo, lobbyist for the Arizona Education Association, said her organization is supportive of what Dial is proposing even though some teachers share the concern about forcing disruptive students to stay in school.
That argument about what happens when you force kids who don't want to be in school to remain is not new.
Those same arguments were raised for decades in the 1970s and early 1980s when students could drop out once they completed the eighth grade. It was not until 1984 that the current tenth grade requirement was implemented along with a mandate, for the first time, for the state to pay for the books of high school students.