By Karen Farmer White
Parents are often advised that children need structure in their lives, from the time they are toddlers through their teenage years. While their minds and bodies are growing and maturing, children don’t always possess the knowledge, skills and experience to make fully informed decisions.
Gov. Tom Wolf understands that formal schooling provides this critical structure, but he also recognizes that Pennsylvania’s requirements for when students must start school and how long they have to remain in school are outdated and must be changed to better serve our students.
The state Board of Education agrees with the governor, unanimously adopting two resolutions on May 8 supporting the proposal to amend the Public School Code.
Wolf’s proposal would lower Pennsylvania’s school attendance requirement from 8 years to 6 years. Pennsylvania is one of just two states in the nation (Washington state is the other) that allows children to wait until age 8 to enroll in school. This compulsory age requirement was established in 1895 and does not reflect the needs of children or families in the 21st century.
Research suggests that an early start in formal schooling can help improve language and literacy skills, increase student achievement, enhance social and emotional skill development, and decrease the need for remediation in later years. Lowering the starting age will help more children get off to a good start in school and will prevent students from falling behind their peers who enter school at an earlier age.
Working parents will have the comfort of knowing their child will have access to education at a critical time in their child’s developmental years. It is estimated that this change will increase enrollment by more than 3,300 children between ages 6 and 7 statewide.
The state board also supports Wolf’s proposal to raise the age at which kids can drop out of school from 17 to 18 years old.
Pennsylvania’s dropout age was enacted in 1949. Over the last 70 years the economy has changed, and the education and skills people need have shifted dramatically.
Today, people increasingly need a high school diploma in order to go to college or start a job-training program necessary to get good, middle class jobs that provide economic security for themselves, their families and our economy.
Each year, more than 13,800 students in Pennsylvania leave school without earning a high school diploma. In 2016-17, approximately 4,400 students dropped out of school at age 17 before graduation.
This leads to billions of dollars in lost earnings and increased public costs over their lifetimes. It also puts Pennsylvania further behind in meeting current and future workforce demands in a knowledge-based, technology-driven, 21st century economy.
Raising the minimum age at which students can leave school can have positive impacts on both individuals and communities, including increased median earnings, improved employment outcomes in adulthood, as well as increased average lifetime wealth.
Our schools provide the structure kids need as they learn and grow into adulthood. The Legislature should support the governor’s proposal to update the compulsory age requirements to better serve our students, families and communities.
Karen Farmer White is the chairwoman of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education. She writes from Harrisburg.