More Criticism for Obama State of the Union Proposal on Schools

Syndicated columnist Steve Chapman is criticizing President Obama’s proposal in the State of the Union address to require students to attend high school longer before being allowed to leave. As I noted earlier, the president would like to require students to attend school until they are at least 18, and the National Education Association, one of his biggest supporters, wants to require students to stay in school until age 21.

As Chapman notes, “Most states now allow students to drop out at 16 or 17.” The reason for this is that while most students benefit greatly from staying in high school, “the youngsters who are most likely to drop out are the ones who are least likely to learn if they stay. If they are 1) struggling to pass, 2) unwilling to apply themselves, 3) chronically tardy and absent, or 4) simply not very bright, they won’t learn much from being [in] a classroom—for two extra years.” As Chapman points out, experts are skeptical of Obama’s proposal (skepticism echoed by analysts quoted in the Washington Examiner):

James Heckman, a Nobel laureate economist at the University of Chicago who specializes in education, is skeptical of the proposal. At the college level, he told me, “The returns to people who are not very able or not very motivated are typically quite low.” There is evidence that kids may get some benefit from being required to stay in high school until 16 instead of 15, he says, but “it’s a weak reed to lean on.”

Let’s also not forget that the highest dropout rates are in the worst schools. Even the kids who want an education often graduate from these schools barely able to read. Where does Obama get the idea that the reluctant students, compelled to remain, will reap a rich harvest of learning?

It might be argued that even if there is no benefit from keeping these students around till they turn 18, there can’t be any harm. But think again.

The presence of disruptive, unmotivated kids in a class is a drain on teachers, a distraction to other students, and a daily obstacle to learning. One of the best things you can do for students who want to do the right thing is to remove those who would rather goof off or make trouble.

It’s not clear that laws like this will even work. A 2010 Johns Hopkins University study found that when six states raised the mandatory attendance age, three saw no increase in graduation rates—and one saw a decline. . .

If you want to keep unwilling students in school, you can spend money on truancy enforcement, which means taking money away from the willing students. It would be more rational to use the funds on education improvements so more kids will choose to stay.

A private company—or a private school—whose customers are fleeing has to come up with ways to keep them around. In Obama’s public sector, there is a quicker solution: Lock the exits.

As I noted earlier, requiring schools to warehouse increasing numbers of would-be dropouts could harm school discipline, and result in increased disorder and violence in inner-city schools with high crime and dropout rates. (The Obama administration has also undermined school discipline in some school systems by interfering with their ability to discipline even violent students; it has investigated school districts, and threatened them with lawsuits and the cut-off of federal funds, because their suspension rates did not satisfy a racial quota.  Former educator Edmund Janko explains here how he used to discipline white students more than black students in order to avoid a discrimination investigation by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (where I used to work.) Janko would suspend whites for offenses that earned black students only a reprimand. That way, he could meet an informal racial quota in school suspensions. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals says such racial quotas are unconstitutional. As I explained, the Obama administration is relying on an interpretation of federal civil-rights laws that appears to conflict with the Supreme Court’s Alexander v. Sandoval decision.)

In his State of the Union address, the president also decried skyrocketing college tuition. But as I explained earlier, Obama administration policies, and recent Education Department rules, have helped drive up college tuition and accelerate cost increases at previously-inexpensive colleges. Thus, Obama helped cause the very college tuition increases that he complained about in his speech.