State legislators want to raise the age at which a student can legally leave school from 16 to 18, but the proposal still faces questions about its effectiveness and cost before going to the full Legislature.

The Senate Education Committee approved the bill Monday, following approval of a similar bill by the Assembly Education Committee on Thursday. Legislators noted poor job prospects and high incarceration rates for high school dropouts.

“Societal changes and the increasing demands of the labor market continue to place a premium on education,” Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman D-Mercer, Hunterdon, a sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.  “A person who stops attending school at age 16 will always lack the skills and preparation to successfully compete in the workforce and function in society.”

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Statewide, 9,283 students formally dropped out of school in 2009-10, according to the most recent state Department of Education data provided by local school districts. That included 417 students in Atlantic County, 76 in Cape May County, 429 in Cumberland County and 468 in Ocean County. Proportionally more Black and Hispanic students dropped out than whites, making up about two-thirds of all dropouts.

A 2009 study by researchers at Northeastern University found one in 10 American male high-school dropouts ages 16 to 24 was in either prison or juvenile detention. More than half of young dropouts were unemployed.

The new bills, S647 and A1411, come on the heels of President Barack Obama calling for all states to raise their mandatory school age to 18. Currently, 21 states require schooling until age 18 or graduation.  In New Jersey, bills have been proposed since at least 2008, but never received sufficient support to move forward.  The Senate bill notes that the requirement for school attendance until age 16 was first established in 1914.

The New Jersey Education Association supports the proposal, but notes the change would put more pressure on schools to provide specialized programs potential dropouts need to be successful in school.

“Too many students drop out of school because they lack the support or do not have access to appropriate educational options,” the NJEA said in a statement supporting the bills. “We cannot allow students simply to walk away from school at age 16, and we should not allow districts to walk away from their responsibility to educate those students.”

 The Senate Education Committee on Monday also approved a bill to create a Student Dropout Prevention Task Force and an Office of Dropout Prevention and Reengagement of Out-of-School Youth within the state Department of Education .

New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said they want to review both the financial and programmatic implications of the bills before taking a position on them.

“Having appropriate programs in place is a legitimate concern,” he said.

Should the bill become law without state financial support, it could be challenged by school districts. The state Council on Local Mandates recently declared the state’s new anti-bullying law unconstitutional because the state did not provide funding to implement it under the “State Mandate State Pay” provision.

Research by the Rennie Center for Education and Research Policy in Massachusetts indicates that raising the mandatory school age alone does not appear to reduce dropout rates. A report funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called dropouts a “silent epidemic” that must be reversed, at least in part, by making school more relevant to students and their futures.

The proposed Senate bill also includes a provision making failure to comply a disorderly persons offense. Parents or guardians of truant students could be penalized $25 for the first offense and $100 for subsequent offenses.

The New Jersey Homeschool Association opposed the bills as undermining parental authority, and the Assembly bill was amended to exclude homeschooled students. The association’s web site includes a sample letter for parents to send to Legislators that says:  “Parents, not state officials, know whether their 16-year-old young adult should pursue formal education or some other preparation for life responsibilities. The cost of forcing unwilling young adults into a formal school setting should not be added to our tax burden.”

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