Educators say troubled teens should keep licenses

Enforcing law that takes license away also takes time away from teachers

May 07, 1999|By David Firestone | David Firestone,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C — FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- For 10 years now, the teen-age driver's license -- that sacred piece of plastic that confers mobility on the restless -- has been the bull's eye of every state legislature in the South.

Drop out of high school and 18 states, 12 of them in the South, will revoke a license. Many of those states will also take it away for poor grades or poor behavior. The laws have proved immensely popular with voters and politicians, who are convinced that they have found the trigger mechanism, the ultimate motivator of the American teen-ager.

But among the people who teach students and run schools, the license laws are increasingly seen as a waste of time and money, particularly because the time and money are usually theirs, not the state's.

Here in Cumberland County, the school board was already swimming in paperwork, busily revoking the licenses of students with poor attendance and grades, when news recently came that Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker had proposed revoking the licenses of disruptive students as well.

Fed up with the state's good intentions, the board voted to oppose the proposal. Using words like "unfunded mandate" and "big government," school officials say they have had enough of the state's helping hand.

"We appreciate the intent of what they're trying to do, but they don't realize the effect these laws have," said William C. Harrison, superintendent of the county's school district, the fourth-largest in the state, with about 50,000 students. "With all the issues we have on our plate, to overload us now with this kind of paperwork, asking us to do the work of social institutions and the family, well, it's a hard sell around here."

Many educators say parents and the legal system should determine who drives, not school officials, who often have to divert teachers or clerks from educational duties to enforce the law. Louisiana dropped its license-revocation law in 1997 after finding it too expensive. Florida let its law lapse in 1996, but legislators revived it the next year over the objections of school officials.

"We originally thought it would change the dropout rate, but it did not," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards' Association. "We found it extremely burdensome, and the paperwork that each principal and guidance counselor had to do was tremendous, and it did not slow down the dropout rate."

But such concerns are not slowing the momentum of the laws. Wicker's proposal recently passed the state Senate unanimously and appears likely to be enacted. Wicker said there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that the laws work, so the eventual outcome would be worth the administrative burden.

"The driver's license is a very powerful motivator among young people, particularly in the South where we don't have much mass transit," he said. "To young people, the license means everything. It's their freedom, it's a means of being able to move around and be mobile, which is very important to the life of a young person. They will do all they can possibly can to keep it."

There is no concrete proof that any of the laws have kept students in school or motivated them to work harder. The school dropout rates in many states did not change significantly after the laws were passed, and in other states, economic or educational changes were credited with improving school attendance.

"Anyone who tells you they know these laws work isn't telling the truth, because no one has done a study," said Kathy Christie, policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization based in Denver that compiles data on state education policies.

"Up to now, these laws have been unpopular only with students, so no one has really put the money in to research it. It's politically easy to do, and it doesn't hurt."

Students are of mixed opinion, depending on their academic standing. Stephen Smith, a sophomore at South View High School here, said a license-revocation law would not bother him because he was on the honor roll, though he added that some of his friends were worried.

Barry Davis, a junior at Cape Fear High School, said the law was unfair. "I'm no good at math," he said. "So why should that mean I can't

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