In the state of Pennsylvania, students are required to attend school until age 18.
That’s the case for South Dakota too. And California. And Kansas.
In fact, 24 states and Washington, D.C., require students to attend school until the age of 18. And a handful more set that age to at least 17, according to data from the Education Commission of the States, a Colorado-based organization that tracks education policies throughout the nation.
But in Florida, students as young as 16 can decide to withdraw from school if they have parent permission. Florida is one of about 17 states — roughly a third of the states in the country — that still allow students who are just-barely driving to make substantial decisions about their education, impacting their careers and even their lives.
For the 2022 legislative session, two Florida House members want to change that.
HB 125 is co-sponsored by Rep. Kevin Chambliss, who represents part of Miami-Dade County in South Florida, and Rep. Susan Valdés, who represents part of Hillsborough in the Tampa Bay area. Both are Democrats.
Currently, Florida law says that a student age 16 or older is required to attend school until a “formal declaration of intent is filed with the district school board. The declaration must acknowledge that terminating school enrollment is likely to reduce the student’s earning potential and must be signed by the student and the student’s parent.”
But HB 125 would only allow 18-year-olds to make such a decision and would no longer require the parent to sign off on it.
For Valdés, the bill is in part an effort to bolster the Florida workforce, because a portion of the future workforce is dropping out before students can earn a high school diploma.
“When we’re constantly hearing ‘we can’t find the workforce’… Well, here it is. You have a bunch of your workforce leaving the institution, that’s helping to prepare that workforce, at the age of 16,” Valdés told the Phoenix.
“So if I bump it up to 18…at least we’ll have that child be in school working towards their career goals and be able to be a productive citizen.”
Valdés is concerned about student prospects if kids do not complete a high school diploma that teens usually earn at the end of 12th grade. She spoke about scenarios such as a 16 or 17-year-old withdrawing from school to help with family matters.
“If you have a predicament… where a child — and many are like that in my community – they feel like they have to go help their parents, they have to go work. Or they are a sibling that takes care of their little siblings while their parents go out to work,” Valdés said. “All of those scenarios are very valid and very real. I see those scenarios every day. And what I constantly remind my kiddos that fall into that category is: ‘just hang in there. It’s tough, I know. And if you don’t wind up getting a high school diploma, it’s tougher when you really become an adult.'”
She said that students can’t get a “good job” without a high school diploma.
“So if you drop out, you go work where? Taco Bell? McDonald’s? Then when you turn 18, where’s your high school diploma?” she told the Phoenix.
Valdés also noted that the effect of the bill, should it be approved by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, would also work to reduce what’s called the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I’m seeing a lot of children, when they do drop out, they go into the other system,” Valdés said. “The prison system.”
The American Civil Liberties Union described this phenomenon as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
“This (HB 125) is just ensuring that students have every opportunity to be successful,” Valdés said.
The Phoenix reached out to Rep. Chambliss and is awaiting a response.
Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar, of the statewide teacher union, supports increasing the compulsory school age to 18.
“It’s a good thing. We have antiquated rules around kids being in school, and I think it’s time that we really look at doing everything we can to keep kids learning and in school,” Spar told the Phoenix. “It’s antiquated in the sense that times have changed. You need to have more skill sets, you need to have more training to be able to be a successful contributor to our democratic society.”
Spar says that students often drop out early because they doubt their success in the Florida school system.
“I think when kids do consider to drop out, they feel like they cannot be successful in school and they do not like that feeling. And so we’ve got to make sure, as a school system, we are doing everything we can to keep kids engaged and excited about learning,” he told the Phoenix.
“I think we should focus on the idea that kids should stay in school, not just from an economic standpoint, but also from a moral obligation to our children, to our future, to our communities, in the sense that life-long learning is truly a human characteristic.”
States vary greatly in what age range qualifies for compulsory school age.
Florida’s required schooling starts at age six, so 5-year-olds don’t have to start school yet, though many children do attend kindergarten.
Spar told the Phoenix that: “I wish we would make kindergarten compulsory in the state of Florida, and maybe even pre-kindergarten.”
As for the upper limit, when students can decide to withdraw from school, the Education Commission of the State reports:
- 17 states require students to attend school until 16;
- 8 states, age 17;
- 24 states, plus Washington D.C. schools, age 18;
- Texas, at 19.
Below is a list of the range in compulsory school ages from different states, based on 2020 data from the Education Commission of the States.
Lower requirement / Upper requirement
- Texas 6 / 19
- Arkansas 5 / 18
- California 6 / 18
- Connecticut 5 / 18
- Washington D.C. 5 / 18
- Hawaii 5 / 18
- Indiana 7 / 18
- Kansas 7 / 18
- Louisiana 7 / 18
- Maryland 5 / 18
- Michigan 6 / 18
- Nebraska 6 / 18
- Nevada 7 / 18
- New Hampshire 6 / 18
- New Mexico 5 / 18
- Ohio 6 / 18
- Oklahoma 5 / 18
- Oregon 6 / 18
- Pennsylvania 6 / 18
- Rhode Island 5 / 18
- South Dakota 5 / 18
- Tennessee 6 / 18
- Utah 6 / 18
- Virginia 5 / 18
- Washington 8 / 18
- Wisconsin 6 / 18
- Alabama 6 / 17
- Colorado 6 / 17
- Illinois 6 / 17
- Maine 6 / 17
- Minnesota 7 / 17
- Mississippi 6 / 17
- Missouri 7 / 17
- South Carolina 5 / 17
- Alaska 7 / 16
- Arizona 6 / 16
- Delaware 5 / 16
- Florida 6 / 16
- Georgia 6 / 16
- Idaho 7 / 16
- Iowa 6 / 16
- Kentucky 6 / 16
- Massachusetts 6 / 16
- Montana 7 / 16
- New Jersey 6 / 16
- New York 6 / 16
- North Carolina 7 / 16
- North Dakota 7 / 16
- Vermont 6 / 16
- West Virginia* 6 / 16
- Wyoming 7 / 16
*The Phoenix found it difficult to verify West Virginia’s compulsory school age as 16 or 17.
This report first appeared on the website of the Florida Phoenix, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to coverage of state government and politics from Tallahassee.