A bipartisan bill moving through the Legislature would deliver what backers say is tough love to keep kids in school by barring young high school dropouts from getting driver's licenses.
"Driving is not a right, it's a privilege, and it's perfectly within bounds for the state government to expect a quid pro quo when it comes to extending privileges," said bill sponsor Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul. Although the state only requires students to stay in school until they are 16, it can look for leverage to keep them in school longer, he said.
If the measure were to become law, Minnesota would join at least 20 other states, including Wisconsin and Illinois, that tie driving privileges to school attendance.
It could mean thousands fewer teens getting licensed. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, more than 4,000 Minnesota high school students dropped out in 2009, a dropout rate of 5.6 percent, based on the state's four-year graduation rates.
Recent high school graduate Alex Greenhalgh said the proposed law could be effective. Getting licensed is "a big deal," said the Minneapolis teen preparing to get his license. He said he didn't like the proposal.
"If students drop out, they should still have the opportunity to drive," Greenhalgh said.
Vanessa Fedde said she needed her driver's license.
Fedde, now 25, dropped out of high school at 17 to care for her ailing mother. She said her mother had severe post-traumatic stress disorder and needed her daughter to work, shop and drive her around.
Fedde said the law could work for some but that it should have a "fail-safe" for kids who have family responsibilities.
"There's just so many gray areas," Fedde said.
Had the law been in effect when she was a young dropout, she said she would have probably just driven anyway.
"I needed it. I had to have it," she said of her license.
Bill cosponsor Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said she typically opposes compulsory attendance laws.
"If they don't want to be [in school], they're going to be more disruptive," Olson said. But the driver's license linkage could provide would-be dropouts another reason to stay in school.
Despite its bipartisan support, it's unclear what chance the proposal has of becoming law this year, with legislators more focused on the state's $5 billion budget deficit than school attendance issues.
Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty supported similar initiatives in 2003 and 2004. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has not reviewed the proposal, his office said, and had no advance opinion on it.
Support for the measure may end up splitting along geographic lines.
"In greater Minnesota, if you're not driving, you're not getting around," Mariani said. "For the sake of their local economies, they might argue that this is a little bit too coercive."
No hearing has yet been scheduled for the bill.
McKenzie Martin is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.
April 19, 2011