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Dropout bill heads to floor

South Carolina teens who drop out of school or skip too many classes would lose their driver's license until they're 18 under a bill cruising through the House.

A House Education subcommittee unanimously approved the measure Thursday morning. The House then agreed to let the bill skip the full committee and come directly to the floor for debate. Legislators hope to move the bill to the Senate so it has a chance of passing this year.

"We're trying to fast-track it," said Education Committee Chairman Phil Owens, R-Easley. "This is an important bill that can have a positive impact."

Its sponsor, Rep. Tom Young, has called it a short-term solution to the state's long-term problem of too many students not graduating. He believes threatening to yank students' driving privileges would be a powerful incentive for them to stay in school.

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

South Carolina's on-time graduation rate is 74 percent.

At least 20 states have passed similar laws, including neighboring Georgia and North Carolina, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. West Virginia was the first to pass it in 1988, followed by Florida a year later.

Last week, the subcommittee delayed voting on the measure, saying too many questions remained on implementing the idea.

Changes approved Thursday to erase opposition from school groups included keeping the legal dropout age at 17, rather than increasing it to 18 - a change officials feared would be costly at a time of deep budget cuts - and delaying when the law would take effect, to Aug. 1, 2011.

Under the tweaked bill, the driver's license of a student who misses seven unexcused days of class, drops out or has been expelled will be suspended. 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.

A student's parent could 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.

That restricted license would cost $100, with 80 percent going to the DMV to offset the law's cost.

Rep. Mike Anthony, a teacher and coach, said he supported the idea, though he generally opposes putting more mandates on schools.

"Once one or two kids realize they could lose their license, it could change conduct in school," said Anthony, D-Union.

House members are pushing the bill through to get past a timing hurdle. Bills not passed in one chamber by the end of next week must get two-thirds approval to be considered by the other.

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