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 Article of Interest - Drop-Outs

Raise state's drop out age to halt exodus of students
by Tom Watkins, Special to The Detroit News, February 12, 2003
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Why does Michigan have a law on the books dating back decades that makes it "legal" for children to drop out of school at the age of 16?

Times have changed. There was a time in Michigan and America where one could drop out of school and get a good-paying job at the factory, join the military or work on the family farm.

Those days are long gone. The factories have not hired someone without a high school diploma, let alone a high school dropout, in more than a decade. The armed forces now require at least a high school diploma to join today, and you need exceptional skills and knowledge to be a successful family farmer today.

We have moved from a society where you needed to be able to "lift" for a living to a society where you now need to "think" for a living.

Given today's fast-paced global economy, to allow children to leave school without the education they need and deserve is state-sponsored stupidity at best and institutionalized racism at worst.

If we had the horrific dropout statistics in our white, middle-class suburbs as we do in Native American, African-American or Hispanic American communities, Michigan citizens would be marching on Lansing demanding that our lawmakers do something.

Yes, I proudly join Gov. Jennifer Granholm as an advocate for raising the age to legally drop out or be pushed out of our schools from 16 to 18. However, it is far more than just raising the legal age one can drop out.

As responsible adults and educators, there is a moral, societal and economic imperative to develop appropriate alternative programs to educate children so they may, one day, support themselves and their families, and fully participate in our democratic society.

We need to move beyond the old Henry Ford slogan, "You can have any color of car you like -- as long as it is black" and develop a wide array of educational opportunities for our kids. A one-size-fits-all educational system will quickly fund itself on the scrap heap of history.

I propose setting a date in the future, such as 2006, for the dropout age to move permanently from 16 to 18. This would give our communities, and our schools, the time to develop alternative school models, such as Mott Middle College in Flint, that can reach students at-risk for dropping out.

Let's not forget that this is one social problem with a built-in solution. Under Proposal A, Michigan's schools are funded by the number of students attending; for every child who drops out, the local school district loses a minimum of $6,700. In Detroit, the foundation allowance is even higher -- $6,784. If 100 students drop out, the Detroit Public Schools lose $678,400, and each child loses hope, opportunity, and a future.

Gov. Granholm has urged the Legislature to adopt legislation that sends a clear message to our students. She has advocated that if students do not show up at school, they should not bother showing up at the Secretary of State's office either. We should not issue driver's licenses to chronic truants.

We need to do more than just change the law. We need to change our attitudes, beliefs, and our educational programs to meet the needs of today's students.

Is it OK for your child to leave school at age 16 without an education to survive and thrive in the 21st century? The community and state that truly leave no child behind will also be the community and state that will rule economically. I want Michigan to be that state.

Tom Watkins is Michigan superintendent of public instruction. The web site for the Department of Education is  Write letters to The Detroit News, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226, or fax to (313) 222-6417 or e-mail to

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