The bill is meant to encourage students to stay in school and graduate, said its sponsor, Rep. Tom Young.
"This is not the silver bullet to the problem. It's not the cure-all. But it is part of a process of addressing the issue," said Young, R-Aiken. He said dropouts are more likely to end up in jail or on welfare, which is expensive for taxpayers.
A House subcommittee voted 3-2 to advance the bill to the full Education and Public Works Committee. The full House passed the identical bill 62-33 last May, but the vote came late in the session, missing a procedural deadline, and died in the Senate.
South Carolina's on-time graduation rate for 2010 was 72 percent, meaning fewer than three of four students earned a regular diploma in four years. That represented a 1.6 percentage-point drop from 2009.
State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, a Republican, has called the state's graduation rate unacceptable. He supports the driver's license idea as one piece of a larger effort to keep kids in school, said his spokesman, J.W. Ragley.
Rep. Bill Taylor, a co-sponsor and fellow Aiken Republican, said the bill is about providing a strong incentive to teens, not a punishment.
"Remember when you were 16, particularly the guys, how important that automobile was? It represented freedom," he said. "It is a privilege to drive an automobile. It's not a right. All we're suggesting here is when you're 16 and 17, you need to do what you need to do as a good citizen. Stay in school."
These days, jobs of all sorts overwhelmingly require a high school diploma, he said.
But Democratic Rep. Harold Mitchell of Spartanburg countered that it's not the government's job to discipline and train children and noted the irony of Republicans advocating for expanded government. He doubted the incentive's effectiveness, noting that many poor students don't have cars anyway.
Nearly two dozen states tie teen driving to school attendance, including neighboring Georgia and North Carolina, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. West Virginia was the first to pass a law suspending dropouts' licenses in 1988, followed by Florida a year later. Louisiana repealed its law in 1997.
South Carolina is among four states this year with proposals to implement similar laws or amend existing ones, according to the legislative conference.
In South Carolina, teens can get a beginner's permit at 15, which allows driving with an adult in the front seat, and a regular license at 17. State law already requires 15- and 16-year-olds to be enrolled in school to get a conditional or restricted license that allows them to drive alone during daylight hours.
Young's bill would suspend the driver's license or permit of a student who misses seven days of class without an excuse, drops out or has been expelled. If they don't yet have a permit or license, they couldn't get one until their 18th birthday. Public, private and home schools would be required to electronically report the absences of 15- to 18-year-olds to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which would send a letter notifying the teen of the suspension.
Students who return to school or enroll in GED classes could get their licenses back.
The executive director of a national dropout center said the law won't have a lasting effect unless legislators and educators get to the root of why kids drop out.
Other states' experiences show that students will initially return to school to keep their license, but they'll likely drop out again unless schools provide various interventions -- such as after-school sessions and smaller classes -- to help them succeed, said Jay Smink of the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University.
"When they go back and realize after two to three weeks it's the same old, same old, they'll say I'm out of here" and drive without a license, Smink said. "On the surface, it's headline news. Fantastic. But implementation is a problem. Do you do something differently? If you don't, you're exacerbating the situation for the youngster who didn't want to be there and is there for the wrong reasons."
He said no report shows a direct correlation between teen driver's license laws and improved graduation rates.
Dropout intervention needs to start in elementary and middle school, he said: "That disengagement in school didn't occur at 14, 15 or 16."
Mitchell questioned whether taking away a dropout's license creates a bigger problem, by preventing the teen from working.
But the bill allows a student's parent to appeal for an exception if the teen needs a license to get to work or to drive a sick family member to medical treatments. If approved, the waiver would allow a limited license that allows the teen to drive from home to work or to medical appointments during certain hours and along certain routes.
The fee for the special, route-restricted license would be $100.