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Wiger faced criticism that disruptive, uninterested students should be cut free to improve the school environment and that the change would add to counties’ costs without improving the graduation rate. Critics pointed to a study by the Brown Center on Educational Policy that said the compulsory attendance age makes little difference in graduation rates.
Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, told a committee hearing of his son’s decision to drop out and do fast-food work — which convinced the son, as it did Wiger, to return to his studies and eventually get a law degree. “There are times when kids just don’t want to go to school,” Hall said. “I don’t think forcing kids to learn is a good idea.”
But the idea has taken root nationally. In addition to Obama’s call for an 18-year-old limit in his 2012 State of the Union Message, it is one of the goals of America’s Promise, a national push to reduce dropouts. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have raised the age to 18, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Wiger and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the change is part of an overall anti-dropout strategy. Gov. Mark Dayton has embraced the plan, too.
“It sends a signal … that you need to be in school,” Wiger said of the new law.
Cassellius said new testing and counseling efforts and more seamless connection with college programs that lead directly to jobs will help engage students who otherwise might walk. “It gives us one more year,” Cassellius said of the age increase. “One more year to capture his heart, capture his passions, get him engaged, to a program of study that really matches well for that student.”
Added Shelly Landry, lead counselor for Minneapolis public schools: “It allows that much more time for the student to mature a little bit and begin to understand the impact of having a high school diploma on their future.”
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said a truancy intervention program begun by his predecessor, Susan Gaertner, has been successful in improving students’ attendance. Raising the legal attendance age makes it less likely that a student who is skipping school will drop out for good, he said. “It takes that off the table for one more year,” he said.
Wiger believes the ultimate answer lies in alternative schools, charter programs and other efforts to “light that flame” for learning and give nontraditional problem students a second chance — just like he had after seven months with the circus and the Twins.
“Obviously, I’ve been in those shoes,” he said.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042