Driver's license limits for school dropouts challenged

A Clark County School District proposal to punish high school dropouts by taking away their driver's licenses might sound tough, but the measure has not proved effective in other states where it has been tried, a researcher said.

Sam Drew, associate director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at South Carolina's Clemson University, said teens often find ways around such laws and states fail to enforce them.

Sometimes the law might even be forgotten: When Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested this summer that the state take away the driver's licenses of dropouts, his re-election challenger, former Houston Mayor Bill White, reminded him the state has had such a law since 1989.

The Clark County School Board today plans to review its legislative bill draft, the Graduation Priority Act, which includes such punitive measures as withholding driver's licenses and work permits from teens who drop out of school. Parents of habitual truants could lose their fishing and hunting licenses.

Cara Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, was critical of such punitive measures for keeping kids in school because many dropouts already struggle with hardships.

"I don't think a person should be punished for being dealt a bad hand," Roberts said. "Punishing them further doesn't seem productive."

She said the chamber favors promoting more vocational education and focusing on early childhood education as ways of dealing with the dropout problem.

Roberts does not support requiring employers to have proof of their teen workers' school attendance history.

"I'm not sure it's the role of employers to be truancy officers," she said.

Drew said punitive measures against dropouts aren't a silver bullet.

"We all tend to feel this one magic solution is going to work. All research on dropout prevention says it's just not true," Drew said.

"However, we know what the problem is," he added. "We know the risk factors. We know why kids drop out of school. We know how to prevent that now, but it's hard work. It requires real change."

Students who are likely to drop out often have attendance problems, disciplinary issues and perform poorly on standardized tests. They also might be bored in school and unconnected to school activities.

Drew acknowledged that punitive measures might be useful if they're part of a comprehensive strategy.

The district already does practice many of the strategies recommended by the dropout prevention center, such as providing mentors to students at risk of dropping out and working with nonprofit groups, such as Communities in Schools, to provide social services to needy students.

Joyce Haldeman, the district's associate superintendent for government relations, has acknowledged that the Graduation Priority Act proposal is going to be "controversial." School officials said they welcome debate on how to improve the district's graduation rate, which was 68 percent in 2008-09.

Haldeman said one practical consideration in pursuing the Graduation Priority Act proposal is economics.

Because the state is expecting another financial shortfall next year, Haldeman said there was no sense in pushing costly legislation in 2011. The Graduation Priority Act isn't expected to have a hefty price tag.

Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said the no drivers license law for dropouts in her state has not been expensive but schools are tasked with providing relevant information to transportation officials.

The law went into effect in Kentucky in 2007-2008, Gross said, but it is too soon to gauge its impact.

"This is something the school districts supported," Gross said. "It was another incentive to keep kids in schools."

North Carolina has had a law denying driver's licenses to dropouts since 1998. Last year, the state had a graduation rate of about 75 percent.

Sara Clark, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said the state has not been able to make a direct correlation between the dropout rate and no driver's license law.

"There's no conclusive evidence this law impacts the dropout rate," she said.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@review or 702-374-7917.