Central Valley

State may use driving as incentive to stay in school

SACRAMENTO -- Targeting what most teenagers lust for, California lawmakers may ban dropouts from driving in a last-ditch attempt to entice them back to school.

The approach, if signed into law, would mark the first time California has used driving as leverage to get kids to stay in school.

Two Assembly bills call for stripping dropouts and habitual truants of driving privileges unless they return to school, reach age 18 or qualify for a hardship waiver.

"It occurs to me that driving is a privilege, it's a state-authorized activity, so I think we have a role here," said Assembly Member Gene Mullin, a South San Francisco Democrat who is pressing the issue as chairman of the Assembly Education Committee.

But Meredith Turney of Capitol Resource Family Impact, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the punishment would intrude on parental rights.

"When you start stepping on the toes of parents and their ability to raise children according to their beliefs, you're getting into a very sticky situation," she said.

Twenty-seven states have laws linking driving privileges to school attendance. California lawmakers wrestled with the issue about a decade ago but ultimately dropped the idea.

This year's carrot-and-stick measures, Assembly Bill 2107 and Assembly Bill 2414, have passed policy committees but not yet reached the Assembly floor.

The bills take aim at provisional driver's licenses, which are issued to 16- and 17-year-olds with various restrictions, including limits on late-night driving without adult supervision.

Both bills target dropouts and habitual truants. AB 2107 would curtail the issuance of new licenses, while AB 2414 would simplify the process for revoking existing licenses.

Gov. Schwarzenegger and state schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell have taken no position on the measures, whose costs have not been estimated.

Opponents call Mullin's AB 2107 toothless because it contains a number of loopholes.

To receive a provisional driver's license, for example, students would have to submit documentation to the Department of Motor Vehicles, but its authenticity would not be checked.

"They forge [school] permission slips and excuses all the time now, so it would just be one more way to do that," said Assembly Member Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.

Specifically, students would have to show proof of school attendance or graduation. For a hardship waiver, they would have to submit signed statements from parents, guardians or employers that they must drive to retain a job or transport family members.

Assembly Member Mike Duvall, R-Yorba Linda, said the bill would lead to worthless "paper pushing" but that requiring document authentication would make no sense, either.

"We're in a huge budget deficit right now, the DMV is part of state government, and we can't put any more responsibilities on them," he said.

Assembly Member Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said AB 2107 is a "good first step" and could be amended in coming years to require document authentication once revenues rise.

"I think you should reward good behavior and not reward bad behavior," he said.

The average high school graduate earns $290,000 more over a lifetime than a dropout, according to a legislative committee analysis.

Under AB 2414, the DMV would be required to suspend the driver's license of a minor reported as a dropout or habitual truant by a School Attendance Review Board.

The bill would simplify an existing, complex process in which juvenile courts can suspend dropouts' licenses but seldom do so.

Roughly 5,000 dropouts or truants had licenses suspended by juvenile courts from 2002-06, less than 2% of those eligible, according to a legislative committee analysis.

Assembly Member Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, said her AB 2414 could bolster School Attendance Review Boards, whose efforts to keep troubled students in school often are brushed off, she said.

Fuller said teenagers typically seek a driver's license at a crucial time in their educational lives, two years before graduation.

"If you could get [truants'] attention, work with the families and get them the resources they need, it just seems like the optimal time to turn the dropout rate around," she said.