Stay in school ... or walk

``Carrots'' haven't been enough. Now, to keep students in high school, some elected officials are proposing the use of a ``stick'' - denying drivers' licenses to dropouts. A Texas legislator is proposing that high school dropouts be denied licenses until they turn 19.

In California, the chairman of the state Senate's education committee has writtena bill requiring that 16-year-olds who want their drivers' licenses be ``on track'' for graduation. Otherwise, they would have to turn 18 before getting a license.

``It's a drastic idea, but it addresses a drastic problem,'' says Texas state Rep. Bill Hammond (R) of Dallas.

In Texas, about 35 percent of all students drop out of high school before achieving their diploma. In California, officials estimate the number to be 25 to 30 percent.

``We need strong incentives to persuade our students to stay in school,'' says state Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Santa Barbara, author of the California bill. ``Few things in this world are more important to a high school student than getting a driver's license.''

Just how far the two proposals will go is unclear. Similar legislation in Illinois died in committee last year. ``Using the punitive approach almost always causes some negative whiplash,'' says Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States.

To keep kids in school, states and school districts have tried everything from cash payments and prizes to special privileges, all with varying success. Still, some educators and others question the wisdom of turning in the other direction and punishing dropouts.

``It hits the button as far as what motivates students,'' says Jon Brumley, chairman of the Texas Board of Education, of the driver's license plan. ``But perhaps our response ought to be motivational rather than punitive.''

Others are concerned about the effect of such laws on adolescents who, despite the threat, leave school. ``We're dealing with people's lives here,'' says Gonzalo Barrientos, a Texas state senator. ``It reminds me of the idea to cut off public assistance from families whose kids don't stay in school. Doesn't it just exacerbate the problem?''

Representative Hammond says he is not insensitive to the difficulty his proposal would cause some teen-agers. ``But [in the long run] the student dropping out of high school is not going to be able to support a family,'' he says. ``At 16 [students] are rarely mature enough to see the consequences of their actions. And when you compare the immediate negative impact to the hardship they will present to society for the rest of their life, it's worth it.''

Mr. Hart's California bill includes an exception for youths who can prove they need a license to obtain a job.

Mr. Barrientos questions the constitutionality of such a law. But Hammond says the driver's license is a ``state-granted privilege, and not a right, which from my understanding is why we could legally do this.''

Such measures may not be inherently unconstitutional, says Gara LaMarche, head of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But he adds that there could be a discriminatory impact in the administration of such laws, because minorities generally have higher dropout rates than white students.

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