S.C. Senate advances bill denying driving privileges to dropouts

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina teens who drop out of school or skip too many classes would lose their driving privileges until their 18th birthday under a bill advanced Wednesday by a Senate committee.

“This is not a silver bullet, but if it will keep some students in school it’s a good thing for South Carolina,” said the main sponsor, Rep. Tom Young, R-Aiken.

The unanimous vote sends the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. It directs schools to electronically notify the Department of Motor Vehicles when students between 15 and 18 years old have been expelled, drop out, or accumulate more than 10 unexcused absences. The DMV would then suspend the students’ licenses. If they don’t yet have a permit or license, they couldn’t get one until their 18th birthday.

A teen caught driving on a license suspended under the law could be fined up to $100.

A teen’s parent could apply for an exception if the teenager needs a license to get to work or to drive a sick family member to medical treatments. A waiver would be automatic for a 17-year-old who joins the military.

Students who return to school or enroll in GED classes could get their licenses back.

The House passed the bill last year by a one-vote margin, with opponents arguing it’s not the government’s job to discipline and train children.

Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, noted the government often uses disincentives in an attempt to change behavior, such as increased taxes on cigarettes as a way to stop or prevent people from smoking. He said the law is overdue in South Carolina, referring to a 1989 recommendation for the law from an economic study commission created by former Gov. Carroll Campbell.

Sen. Wes Hayes acknowledged the measure would likely have no effect on some teens.

“So many of the dropouts we’re trying to reach don’t have a license. They don’t have a car,” said Hayes, R-Rock Hill. “This will target a certain group who wants the privilege to drive.”

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.

The state budget office estimates the DMV would have to spend about $510,000 in one-time start-up costs, for the technology upgrades to allow electronic notification from public, private and home schools, and $107,000 in recurring costs for three new employees. The Administrative Law Court, which would hear the appeals from parents, estimates it would have to hire two additional hearing officers and an assistant at a cost of $110,000, according to a Feb. 7 budget office report.

That’s because the court estimates the law would generate several hundred additional cases yearly on a system that simply can’t absorb anymore. Current hearing officers already take on 20 cases a day, said court clerk Janice Shealy.

Young said the cost to taxpayers is far higher when students drop out of school.

In general, those who drop out are more likely to be poor and receive social services. In South Carolina, dropouts are twice as likely to rely on Medicaid, increasing the cost of the government health care program for the poor by roughly $155 million yearly, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Nearly 6,300 high school students dropped out during the 2009-10 school year, or less than 3 percent of ninth- through 12th-graders statewide. The year-to-year dropout rate is different than the graduation rate, though the two are often incorrectly referred to interchangeably.

Roughly three-fourths of high school students statewide graduated on time in 2011. South Carolina’s 73.6 percent on-time graduation rate refers to students who graduate with a regular diploma in four years.

Young has been pushing his bill for three years.

The House initially passed it in May 2010, but the vote came late in the session, missing a procedural deadline, and died in the Senate. Young reintroduced it for 2011-12.


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