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Governor's plan would revoke driver's license of absent students
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These students at Johnson High in St. Paul are divided over whether Pawlenty's proposal is a good one. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Gov. Pawlenty says students who skip too much school should lose their driving privileges. Pawlenty announced Tuesday he also wants to prevent students with excessive absences from automatically advancing to the next grade. DFL lawmakers blasted the plan as an overly simplistic approach to a complex problem.

Arden Hills, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty says students are much more likely to succeed in school if they're regularly showing up for classes. He says linking driver's licenses to school attendance could be an effective incentive to help curb a growing problem in many schools.

The Republican governor's plan would direct schools to report students with excessive absences to the Department of Public Safety. He says those reports would trigger the suspension of the student's license, or denial of eligibility for a driver's license if they don't yet have it.

"Before people get all hung up about the privilege of driving, we have to make sure that children have the cornerstones of life properly in place," Pawlenty says. "And I have no hesitation linking expectations around school attendance and their privilege of driving. We need to make sure we have the horse before the cart."

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Image Announcing anti-truancy program

Pawlenty defines excessive absenteeism as missing 20 percent of school time during a quarter, semester or school year. Dropouts would also lose driving privileges. However, they could apply for a waiver to keep driving. Pawlenty also wants to keep students with poor attendance and low performance from moving on automatically to the next grade. His plan would end the practice of social promotion in all school districts. The governor also wants to mandate summer school statewide for any student who's failed one of the state's Basic Skills Tests in reading, math or writing.

"We realize that several of these proposals are agressive. They are intended to be agressive. But we have a situation, as I've said before, in many of our school sites in Minnesota where the performance levels are not acceptable," Pawlenty says. "We need to raise the bar for accountability and expectations for students and parents, and these proposals we believe will advance the cause on those measurements."

The proposals would require changes in state law. DFL legislative leaders were quick to criticize the plan. House Minority Leader Matt Entenza says the governor is looking for simplistic, sound bite solutions. Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, says Pawlenty is using his education initiatives as a way to cover up budget cuts he pushed last session.

"What's effective in keeping kids in school is not gimmicks, but getting parents involved in an authentic way, not taking over their role, and making sure that kids who are truant have the proper supports, the proper time on task," says Greiling. "They need to spend time in summer school. They need to spend time after school. The governor cut those programs. Those are what really work."

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Image Rep. Mindy Greiling

In the parking lot at Johnson High School in St. Paul, students heading to their cars after the end of the school day were generally supportive of Gov. Pawlenty's plan. Mike Mullaney is a senior who drives to school every day.

"I think it's a great idea. It's more of an incentive to go to school. People will show up more. Even if they don't want to go, they're not going to want their license taken away," says Mullaney.

Junior Carrie Walz agrees. She says the governor's plan would use the right leverage.

"I think to most teens, driving is one of their favorite things to do. And I don't think that a lot of kids would just stupidly not go to school just to get their license taken away," says Walz.

But Jennifer Sanchez, another junior, says she wonders about the impact on dropouts. She says some student have to leave school after becoming parents.

"If someone has to get a job to support a family, it would probably be necessary for them to have a license. I mean taking the bus is a possibility, but that would just take more money," says Sanchez.

The governor's announcement was the third part of an education agenda he calls "Excellence and Accountability." Previous proposals focused on getting students reading by the end of first grade. He also outlined a "super teachers" program, aimed at help struggling schools attract top educators.

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