ST. LOUIS — IN Colorado, the truant student's dream could come true next year. When the state legislature reconvenes next month, it will consider cutting loose truants and troublemakers who don't want to be in school by repealing all compulsory-education laws.
Frustration with disruptive students is high in public schools nationwide. But Colorado is the first state to consider such a drastic way to deal with the problem of creating safe environments for learning.
''School is chosen as the first line of detention because it's there,'' says state Rep. Russell George (R), who initiated the bill. ''But what is the cost of using the public school to hold these students? I think it's time to analyze the whole issue of compulsory education.''
If passed in its present form, the proposal would remove all constraints on children attending school. Colorado students would not be required to report to school at any age or stay in school to any age.
Forty years ago, several Southern states briefly revoked their attendance mandates after the Supreme Court ordered desegre-gation. Then, the goal was to keep white students from having to attend school with blacks. But this is the first serious reexamination of the school-attendance requirements put in place nationwide a century ago.
Today, every state in the country has a compulsory-attendance law, though the age requirements vary. Under current Colorado law, children between 7 and 16 must
attend school. Other states require students to enroll in school as early as five years old or as late as eight years old. The upper-age requirements range from 16 years old to 18 years old.
Critics call the idea of eliminating attendance requirements absurd. ''The current laws on the books are not being enforced,'' says Janice Chmela, editor of the Journal for Truancy and Dropout Prevention. ''If the laws were enforced you'd have less serious juvenile crime.''
But Mr. George, the Colorado lawmaker, is not so sure. ''The effect of enforcing truancy laws is that you make it harder for students who want to learn and teachers who want to teach,'' he says. Perhaps regular public schools would be better off without students who do not want to be there, he argues.
But the cost of eliminating school-attendance requirements could be high, Ms. Chmela warns. ''It's a case of pay me now or pay me later,'' she says. ''You're either going to spend the money to salvage these kids early or you're going to have to spend three times as much to house them in prisons.''
Although he wrote the proposal, even George says he is not promoting a total abolition of school-attendance laws. Instead, he wants to spark discussion about the issue. ''I don't want to ignore that this is a two-sided coin,'' he says. ''We can't ignore what happens to the kids who are moved out of the public schools.''
The legislator says he does not expect this bill to pass in its present form and would not even support it. In the end, he predicts only slight changes in the state's compulsory-attendance laws. ''If the majority of the people who come to testify will admit that compulsory education is part of the problem, we might experiment with dropping the requirement down a year or two from 16 to 15.''
The issue has been simmering below the surface for some time. After decades of addressing the dropout problem in schools, some educators are beginning to see another problem arising from the successful retention of more students.
''We have a higher percentage of students staying in school now than we have in recent history,'' says Chris Pipho of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. ''We've fixed one half of the problem: We've kept students in school. But have we given them the quality of programs they need?''
Educators have long asked themselves why communities spend scarce public resources on students who don't want to be in school. ''It gets to the whole issue of warehousing students,'' Mr. Pipho says. ''Maybe if a student is not ready to learn, we ought to wait and put them in high school when they are ready for it.''
As an assistant principal in charge of attendance and discipline at Columbian High School in Tiffin, Ohio, William Wise has had the same thought. ''We definitely have a problem because we have kids who have no interest in school and are only here because the law says they have to be,'' he says. ''They're not getting a whole lot out of it.''
In a study he conducted at his school last year, Mr. Wise documented only a small correlation between attendance and grades. Time in the classroom does n't necessarily lead to learning, he found.
THAT has been the contention of home schoolers for years, says Scott Somerville, an attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association in Paeonian Springs, Va. ''Compulsory attendance is not the same as education,'' he says. ''The fact that a child has to go to school does not mean that he has to learn anything.''
So far, however, just loosening guidelines for compulsory education has not been easy. Last year the Wisconsin legislature passed a bill to lower the state's compulsory-attendance age from 18 to 16. But the plan was vetoed by Gov. Tommy Thompson (R).
''Compulsory education is a pretty old concept in this country,'' Pipho says. ''My guess is that the Colorado bill will generate an interesting discussion and interest from other states.''
George would be satisfied with that. ''We're certainly touching a nerve that is common all across the country,'' he says. ''Some of our best laws and best societal changes start this way.''