Arizona students wouldn’t be allowed to drop out of school until they’re at least 18 if Gov. Janet Napolitano has her way.
The governor on Tuesday said it’s a problem that state law allows students to drop out after turning 16. In fact, Napolitano said, youngsters actually can leave school at 14 if they have a job and parental consent.
“It seems to me that in this day and age, when we’re asking and need our students to know more, that that dropout age may be anachronistic, no longer fitting with the needs of our students and with our state,’’ she told members of a special state commission studying education.
Napolitano said it runs counter to the federal No Child Left Behind law.
She said students should have to stay in school until they reach legal adult age. And she asked members of the P-20 Council — named because it covers education from preschool through college — to suggest ways to keep students in school and maintain “rational” enforcement of mandatory attendance laws.
Arizona, according to at least one study, has one of the worst dropout rates in the nation.
The governor also told the council she wants recommendations to ensure all students have access to algebra by the eighth grade. She said students who enter high school without algebra are not prepared for advanced math and science courses.
“Eighth-grade algebra is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ as to whether a student is really getting prepared for high school — and beyond,’’ Napolitano said.
Yet Napolitano admitted that as governor she doesn’t use algebra all that much. “But I certainly use the mental rigor that algebra begins to impart,’’ she said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said altering the minimum dropout age isn’t the answer.
“My solution to the dropout problem is to persuade kids that they should be in school with things like outside mentoring, peer counseling, flexible hours and career technical education,’’ he said. “But if you force kids who don’t want to be there to be there, they can be disruptive.”
The extent of Arizona’s dropout problem depends on whose figures are considered.
The state Department of Education pegs the dropout rate for the 2004-05 school year at about 7 percent. The figure was based on the 16,694 high school students who did not complete the year or return the following year, and did not transfer, graduate or die.
By contrast, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which publishes data about children each year, pegged the state’s dropout rate at 11 percent — 45th nationwide. That report, however, uses Census Bureau data to determine students 16 through 18 who are not enrolled in high school and have not graduated.
The Department of Education maintains the low ranking is unfair for a rapidly-growing state such as Arizona, because it fails to determine whether students dropped out of an Arizona school or came here after leaving school outside the state.
East Valley educators also had different views on the merits of changing the dropout age limit.
Ric Borom, principal of Mesa’s Pinnacle Charter High School, frequently works with teens who are at risk for dropping out. He doubts a new law will keep kids in school.
“The motivation for a student to graduate has to come from inside themselves, to be internal, not external,” Borom said.
Jennifer Petersen, president of the Scottsdale Unified School District governing board, said allowing students to leave school at 16 is an outdated law.
“I think it has to be an antiquated law from back in the day when a lot of kids didn’t even go through the eighth grade,” she said. “Hallelujah, if they’re going to change it.”
- Tribune writer Andrea Falkenhagen contributed to this report.