Heffernan Bill Would Raise Minimum School Attendance Age to 18 Years

DOVER – In an effort to encourage students to graduate high school, the age at which students must attend school would be increased to 18 under legislation unveiled Wednesday.

Sponsored by Rep. Debra Heffernan, House Bill 55 would raise the age requirement for compulsory school attendance in Delaware from 16 to 18 over a two-year period. Currently, a student who is 16 years old or older is not legally required to be enrolled in school. The draft legislation is similar to House Bill 244, which was introduced in the 146th General Assembly.

“We stress over and over how invaluable an education is to being successful in life. We see more and more of that in the 21st century, a high school diploma is no longer optional. It really is the minimum education for young people today who want economic success and independence,” said Rep. Heffernan, D-Brandywine Hundred South. “As we continue working to improve our educational system, we need to have students staying to complete their coursework.”

HB 55 incorporates the option for alternative routes to completing high school for youth age 16 and older. The alternative learning plans would include age-appropriate academic rigor and the flexibility to incorporate the child’s interests and manner of learning. The plans could include paths such as independent study, private instruction, performing groups, internships, community service, apprenticeships, and on-line courses.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 24 other states require school attendance until students are 18. Another 11 states require attendance until students reach 17. Maryland’s General Assembly passed a law in 2012 increasing its age from 16 to 17 in 2015 and to 18 later this year.

NCES notes that in 2014 the median earnings of young adults (ages 25-34) with a high school diploma ($30,000) was 20 percent higher than the median earnings of those without a high school diploma ($25,000).

“Ensuring that students continue their education is critical for their personal economic futures,” said Rep. Heffernan, a former Brandywine School Board president. “This bill not only will provide the requirement that students get that education in school, but allow flexibility for them to seek alternative plans to complete their coursework.”

The measure would be phased in over two years, with a one-year interim period in which the required school attendance age would be 17 years beginning September 1, 2018, and increasing to 18 years the following September. The bill also would increase the age for truancy to coincide with the school attendance age changes.

The proposal also preserves an exemption allowing a child to be excused from required attendance at the request of the child’s parent or legal guardian with written support from a qualified health professional. It also allows an exemption for children who graduate from high school before they turn 18.

HB 55 was drafted with input from the state Department of Education and has been assigned to the House Education Committee.