Bill To Deny Licenses To Dropouts Advances - WSPA.com

Bill To Deny Licenses To Dropouts Advances

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By Ellen Meder

Lawmakers are taking aim at South Carolina’s high dropout rate with a bill that would take driving privileges away from students who stop going to school.

Wednesday the full Senate Education Committee passed a bill that would revoke driver licenses from high schoolers who drop out.

During the 2010-2011 school year 6,265 high school students dropped out, about 2.9 percent. That is down from 3.9 two years before, but still the on-time graduation rate was just 73.6 percent.

The bill’s sponsor Rep. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said that though there are costs associated with the change, the bill is inspired by the big picture of having a more educated workforce in South Carolina.

“The social cost associated with kids that drop out of school are staggering and if we can do anything at all to encourage kids to stay in school then that’s a step in the right direction,” Young said.

He noted that 60 percent of the state’s inmates did not complete high school and that it’s documented that more dropouts mean increased Medicaid cost, unemployment rates and poverty.

Under the bill, school districts would report to the Department of Motor Vehicles once a month with students who have 10 unexcused absences and are no longer coming to class. From there the DMV, which would need new staff and computer infrastructure to handle the task, would determine if that student is one of the exceptions and if not, a letter would me mailed informing the teenager that their license has been suspended.

Teenagers who can prove they are working to support their family could keep their licenses, as well as any who need to be able to drive them selves to doctor appointments because of a condition. Students who are 17 and have joined the military with parental consent are also excluded.

Young said he’s spoken with many high school students in his area and they frequently tell him losing the freedom that driving gives them would be a big deterrent from quitting school. In fact, he hopes once it goes into effect it could encourage some students to re-enroll in school or get their GED to get their licenses reinstated.

Neighboring Georgia and North Carolina have had similar rules in place for over a decade.

The idea to make driving an incentive to stay in school has been kicked around the State House since the Commission on the Future, commissioned by then Gov. Carroll Campbell, recommended it in 1989.

Young filed a bill last session, which passed the House and the Senate finance committee but was never taken up on the floor and died at the end of session in 2010.

This time around Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, who sits on the education committee, doesn’t want that to happen and said he’ll try to put the bill on special order.

He said there’s no “silver bullet” to decreasing dropout rates, but that the state uses deterrents for other bad behaviors, like putting higher taxes on cigarettes, and that this is no exception, given how much having a license means to teens.

“It’s probably the number one item that everybody looks forward to as they’re growing up and they can’t wait for their 15th birthday so they can apply for their learner’s permit, so if we can use this as one of the tools in our chest to keep people in school, it’s a great tool. I don’t think it’s a silver bullet, it’s just one tool in the arsenal,” Ryberg said.

The committee shot down an amendment that would require the program to be put in place only if there is money for a line item in the budget. Ryberg, who voted it down, said it will never get done if there is “an out” in the law and that making sure the state has an educated population is too important to wait for spare funding to arrive.

The DMV estimates it would take $374,000 to get the program going, and Melinda Woodhurst, the director of the administration division said that’s a hard pill to swallow for an agency that runs on the fees it collects.

But Young said since the DMV is a cabinet agency it’s simply about the governor’s priorities and having the DMV crunch the numbers to find a way to make it happen.

He also pointed out that last year the department had $18,228,169 in an account that rolled over to this fiscal year.

The bill would also add 300 to 500 cases to the Administrative Law Court’s already heavy load, so it would need $108,000 to add employees.

“That cost to the state is nominal compared to the benefit we will receive from the lower social costs we as tax payers will pay associated with people who drop out of school,” Young said. “There is a proven benefit that if you stay in school and get a high school degree you’ll be a more productive member of society and we as tax payers will not be paying as much if we can increase our graduation rate.”

The bill still faces the full Senate and the governor. If signed into law the changes would go into effect August 2013 as to give the DMV time to get the program up and running.

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