HELENA - Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau told the governor in a meeting Tuesday that she will ask the 2011 Legislature to increase the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 18 years of age.
Juneau's announcement came as she laid out her legislative plans to Gov. Brian Schweitzer - which include a proposal to send a little more money to schools than the governor is seeking.
Juneau said she thinks it is important to increase the compulsory school attendance age for the first time since 1921. The schools chief said many students who drop out at 16 years of age do so because they know they can.
"It would raise the expectation that we expect every student to graduate," Juneau said.
Her office points out that more than three-fourths of the inmates in the prison system are high school dropouts.
She called the proposal to increase the age a "keystone" to her legislative plans this session. One potential catch is that fiscal analysts have determined the bill could cost up to $1 million because more than 1,000 students could stay in school. The state funding system for schools is based on a head count.
Juneau, a Democrat, said Republican state Sen. Taylor Brown has agreed to sponsor the plan. The GOP has overwhelming control of the Legislature for at least the next two years.
Brown said it is worthwhile to change the societal expectation that it is OK to drop out at 16 years of age. He noted the bill still allows students to seek alternative forms of education like home schooling or trade-based instruction.
"If we are successful in keeping more kids in school, if we are successful in keeping our dropout rate down, it is going to cost more in the public education system," Brown said. "I am aware that if we are successful in keeping kids in school, there is going to be an expense."
Nationally, 19 states set their cutoff age at 16 while the rest either have it at 17 or 18 years of age, Juneau's office said.
Juneau said her office is also supporting schools with other efforts to graduate more students. She said some large districts have been successful in persuading dropouts to return to school.
Juneau said that currently, 81 percent of students who start the ninth grade will complete high school within four years and 85 percent eventually complete it.
In any given year, about 3.6 percent of the school population drops out.
The proposal could run into issues in the Legislature. Juneau said a lower-profile push by her office was shot down in 2009.
And as recently as 2007 some conservative lawmakers considered getting rid of the compulsory attendance law altogether.
Republicans in control of the Legislature are also likely to push back on Juneau's plans to increase education funding more than what Schweitzer has requested. Some Republicans have said it instead may be necessary to cut school funding.
Schweitzer indicated he wouldn't oppose Juneau's proposal but added he thinks it's unlikely the Legislature will provide even as much as his office has requested.
The governor suggests funding his proposed increase largely by taking money from an account set up for local infrastructure projects and by redistributing county oil tax revenue equally across the state.