This week, the Office of Public Instruction released its annual Graduation and Dropout Report. For the fourth year in a row, graduation rates were up and dropout rates were down. The credit for this improvement belongs to the school leaders, teachers, students, community members and parents who have put in the work at the local level to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of students who may not have made it to graduation without their efforts.
While we can celebrate this success, we also know that 1,841 students dropping out of Montana schools each year is too many. The Montana Legislature can play a significant role in supporting our local and statewide Graduation Matters dropout prevention efforts by supporting two critical pieces of legislation.
Senate Bill 13 seeks to raise the legal dropout age from “age 16” to “age 18 or upon graduation,” and Senate Bill 14 would provide state funding to schools for educating 19-year-olds.
Montana is one of a dwindling number of states that allows students to legally drop out of high school at age 16. This law has not been changed in 90 years, but the world we live in has significantly changed during that time. We now live in a time of social and economic circumstances that require, at a very minimum, a high school diploma.
I understand that when we expect more from our schools and students, we need to create flexibility and alternatives for implementation. That’s why Senate Bill 13 allows for different pathways to success for students. These pathways include adult basic education and the GED, Job Corps, Youth Challenge or apprenticeships.
If SB13 passes, we expect that 244 students annually will choose not to drop out of school. That’s 244 students who will have greater opportunities for economic success.
Many Montanans may not know that our schools receive no state funding for educating 19-year-olds. According to the Education Commission of the States, Montana is the only state in the country that provides no funding for students older than 18 years of age.
Students who need a fifth year or an extra semester of high school are often highly motivated to graduate and need the extra time to recover core credits, have transferred from a school system that gave them a “late start” in Montana’s school system, or have dropped out of school due to family circumstances and have reenrolled in high school to earn their diploma.
SB14 will provide schools with the necessary funds to support the educational needs of students who need a little more time to graduate.
Graduating from high school is a fundamental quality of life issue for individuals, their families, communities and the state of Montana.
A high school graduate earns an average of more than $9,200 annually than a student who drops out. Individuals with a high school diploma have an employment rate twice as high as individuals who dropped out of high school. In addition, nearly 75 percent of the inmates in the Montana state prison system are high school dropouts.
Our changing world and the economic success of the next generation demand that we take action to increase the graduation rate in Montana. If you agree, I urge you to contact your legislators to ask for their support for Senate Bills 13 and 14.
Together, we have an opportunity to enhance the economic future of our state and improve the lives of hundreds of Montana students.
Denise Juneau is Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.