Good Riddance to the Dropout Bill
The Colorado House of Representatives Education Committee recently killed House Bill 1044, which would have denied a driver's license to those who drop out of school. The bill would have, in effect, turned school principals into Department of Motor Vehicle agents and DMV agents into truant officers. A teenager's ability to drive would have been denied not because he harmed someone, or created a risk of harm by drinking and driving, but simply because he made a choice that offends some sensibilities. The bill's demise is worth celebrating.
But while the dropout bill is gone for now, the ideas behind it remain. And the fact that it got four votes out of the 11-member Education Committee merits some examination.
One of the arguments set forth by sponsor Rep. Cheri Jahn (D - Jefferson County) was that it is cheaper to keep dropouts in school than to pay for welfare and corrections when they get into trouble. This would be a good point except that it assumes that all dropouts either end up on welfare or go to jail. And some do, but so do some high school graduates.
Rep. Jahn missed the irony that denying a dropout a means to get to and from a job -- a driver's license -- is itself an incentive towards welfare dependency. Also missed was the possibility of making new criminals out of dropouts who chose driving to a job over obeying the law.
Rep. Debbie Stafford, a bill supporter, is quoted by the Rocky Mountain News: "It's unfortunate, but we may be in a day and age where we have to look at alternatives -- we have to hit them where it hurts." This sounds more like a president justifying the bombing of suspected terrorist targets than a debate over school dropouts.
Such class snobbery toward those who drop out of school wrapped in a piece of legislation purporting to "send a message" about the importance of education may make for good cocktail party chatter. But the real message behind such measures is to teach fear and loathing of the state to those whose circumstances force them into tough choices.
We would all like to see every kid in Colorado stay in school and get that diploma, and in a perfect world they would. But despite the best efforts of the political class to regulate life into their vision of the "one best way," we still live in a perfectly imperfect world.
Like it or not, some have to choose between finishing school and keeping bread on the table -- be it working for someone else or pitching in on the farm or family business.
And for those young people who drop out because of horrid personal or family circumstances, which are generally outside their control, denying them a license also denies them a tool of empowerment: mobility. The means to leave and start over. For these dropouts, HB 1044 was the equivalent of the state kicking them while they are down.
Moreover, society already exacts punishment on those who forego a high school diploma in the form of limited job opportunity and social status. It's bad enough that a high school dropout may be regarded by some as a second-class citizen. There is no need for the state to codify such attitudes.
Further, the bill required principals to verify school attendance to the Department of Revenue prior to a driver's license being issued. In an age where "lock down" has become a school concept as well as a prison one, you would think educators have their hands full enough without also having to act as motor vehicle agents for every student applying for a license, especially those no longer in their charge.
Stephen Moore and Julian Simon's book, "It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last Hundred Years," shows that only one in four Americans born in 1900 received high school diplomas, but only one in 10 born in 1960 did not. In other words, rates of high school completion have risen dramatically in America. And continue to do.
So why the sudden urge to "hit them where it hurts"?
It is gratifying that at least seven members of the Education Committee saw fit to say no to this bill. Two of the virtues lawmaking should embody are a sense of justice and equality; HB 1044 had neither.
[Editor's note: One Libertarian commented, "Maybe it's the smart ones who leave."]
Research Associate Mike Krause wrote this article for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank concerned with education reform and located in Golden, Colorado.
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