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Patrick wants to raise dropout age

Plan to require attendance till 18

Massachusetts students should no longer be allowed to drop out of school at 16, Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday, endorsing a plan to raise the mandatory school attendance age to 18.

Patrick, speaking at a summit in Worcester on high school graduation rates, said he would embrace legislation adopted in at least 15 other states and the District of Columbia that will force teenagers to stay in school longer. Other states -- including New Hampshire, New Mexico, Arizona, and South Dakota -- are also considering raising the age to 18, according to the Education Commission of the States.

"Look, this is one of the things that just strikes me as another anachronistic holdover, that you can make a decision to drop out at 16, but you can't make a decision to have a drink at 16 or to enlist in the armed forces or to vote," Patrick said later in the day.

During the gubernatorial campaign, it was Patrick's rival, former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, who championed an increase in the dropout age. At the time, Patrick said he would consider the idea, but he did not make it a central part of his education agenda.

More than 5,800 Massachusetts high school juniors and seniors dropped out in 2004-2005, the most recent year for which data are available. Statewide, the high school dropout rate rose to 3.8 percent that year, from 3.3 percent two years earlier.

Concerns about the cost of raising the mandatory age and how schools would enforce it quickly emerged yesterday, even among supporters of the plan.

During the campaign, Healey estimated it would cost around $70 million a year for alternative programs to help students stay in school and to cover the cost of additional students.

Representative Garrett Bradley, a Hingham Democrat who has been pushing the legislation for more than a year, said cost should not be a factor, since school systems receive state and local dollars for each student.

Leaders of teachers unions and school superintendents said yesterday that schools would need more money and programs, such as extra tutoring and counseling, to enforce the law.

"These kids, if they don't have the right support system, they're going to fight it all the way," said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

The leaders of the Joint Committee on Education, Representative Patricia A. Haddad of Somerset and Senator Robert A. Antonioni, said they would support the measure as long as schools had help enforcing it.

"It's got to be more than changing the age," said Antonioni , a Leominster Democrat . "If it were that simple we would have done it years ago."

Research on raising the dropout age is mixed. Connecticut, which raised its mandatory age in 2001, saw the number of dropouts decline, though the state could not definitively say last fall that the higher age was the reason.

Mandatory attendance laws stem largely from a push to reduce the number of children in the workforce, according to MIT labor economist Joshua Angrist. In a 1991 report he coauthored, Angrist found that students who were forced to stay in school increased their earnings as much as 10 percent per additional year of schooling.

Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said the state should try pushing alternatives such as online classes or other programs to engage students, before raising the dropout age.

"The worst thing you would want is just to look at this very complex dropout problem and say, 'Well, why don't we just raise the age to 18,' and find out you've just created another problem," he said.

Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.

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