Student testifies on dropout legislation

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Cody Hill was disappointed when Senate Bill 44 died in committee Monday afternoon.

The junior at Whitefish Independent High School testified last week before the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee in support of the bill, which would have raised the legal dropout age from 16 to “age 18 or upon graduation.”

Hill was one of three high school students to travel to Helena to testify, said teacher Matt Holloway, who drove him to Helena.

The experience made Hill feel more invested in the bill’s fate than he otherwise might have been. Learning the bill likely won’t go before the full Senate was disappointing, he said.

“I’m kind of bummed out about it,” he said.

The bill was held up in the Education and Cultural Resources Committee by a tie vote. Sens. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman; Gary Branae, D-Billings; Taylor Brown, R-Huntley; Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency and Tom Facey, D-Missoula, voted in its favor.

Sens. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish; Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek; Jeff Essman, R-Billings; Bob Lake, R-Hamilton and Eric Moore, R-Miles City, voted against it.

Zinke, the committee chairman, said during Monday’s meeting that he didn’t think the bill addressed the heart of the issue. It doesn’t “create an environment where kids want to learn or avenues where they should learn,” he said.

“Simply locking the door, I think, falls short of addressing the core problems [of] why we are losing kids and why they are walking out the door,” he added.

Hill volunteered to testify Jan. 12 on the bill’s behalf as a member of Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau’s Student Advisory Board.

The board is part of Graduation Matters Montana, an Office of Public instruction initiative to improve graduation rates.

But Hill also can speak from personal experience about what raising the dropout age might do for students.

“I’m 16. I almost dropped out last year. I didn’t really want to go back to school,” he said.

Hill was a sophomore at Whitefish High School who found high school, with what he calls its “drama,” overwhelming.

“Everything piled together, and school wasn’t really that great,” he said. “The independent high school is so much better. It takes away the high school stuff, the drama.”

If not for the independent high school, Hill said he probably would have dropped out, although there’s a chance he might have transferred instead to Flathead, Glacier or Columbia Falls high school.

Hill had a testimony prepared before he arrived in Helena, but when he got to the Capitol, he found out he would only have one minute to speak.

“I ended up winging it,” he said.

Hill said he told the committee, “I don’t want to be one of those kids who’s 18 years old going nowhere and doing nothing in their life” because they don’t have a diploma.

School makes up “12, 13 years of your life,” he added. After investing so many years in school already, “why not finish the last four?”

The bill’s opponents expressed concern for what it might do to the kids who want to be in school if those who don’t want to be there were forced to go.

“They said it would have a dramatic impact on the kids who did want to be there,” Hill said. “But the kids that don’t want to be there are the ones who need the help and the extra push to stay there.”

Money also was a deterrent. Fiscal analysts said the bill could have cost up to $1 million because more than 1,000 students could stay in school. Those extra students would impact school funding, which is largely driven by enrollment.

“I understand where they’re coming from with that,” Hill said. “It would have cost a lot of money, and I know that’s a huge thing right now. I understand we might not have the money for that.

“But then I think without [raising the legal dropout age], that we are going to lose money from students not graduating from high school not earning the money that could be earned for the state.”

That was part of Juneau’s argument in support of the bill. More than 2,000 Montana students in grades seven through 12 drop out each year, she says. Her office, citing the Alliance for Excellent Education, estimates that high school dropouts nationwide on average earn $9,2000 less per year than high school graduates, and about $1 million less over a lifetime than college graduates.

A press release from Juneau’s office says Montana’s economy would see an additional $19.6 million in annual revenue and crime-related savings if the male high school graduation rate rose 5 percent.

“As community leaders, educators and policymakers, we must confront this problem,” Juneau said. “The status quo is unacceptable when the consequences for both individuals and for our state are so serious. We must set our expectations for students and schools higher than eighth-grade graduation.”

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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