Should High School Dropouts Be Denied the Vote?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because too many kids get left behind.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — they’ve woefully lagged behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special series High School, Disrupted to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.
Want to vote? Don’t drop out of school. If you never learned about the Constitution, then you’re not equipped to determine who should be president of the United States. And if you think the Bill of Rights is about tipping your waiter, then you should be barred from any voting booth. The fate of the nation rests in your hands — but only after they’re holding a high school diploma.
Sound harsh? The notion that we would deny high school dropouts the right to vote is indeed a provocative one, says Jennifer Lansford, a professor at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy who traced the life path of high school dropouts. “We run the risk of becoming a more elitist society by privileging people from families with higher education, getting away from our working-class roots,” says Lansford. But America’s Founding Fathers were afraid of the uninformed masses making bad decisions on behalf of the country. So — for the sake of democracy — why not take away the right to vote if you haven’t been properly edumacated?
People should be encouraged, not discouraged, from voting.
—UCSB education professor Russ Rumberger
The idea has a formidable — and sometimes morally repugnant — pedigree. Political philosopher John Stuart Mill was an early advocate of plural voting rights, a concept in which “more competent” citizens are given extra votes. That was elitist, no doubt, but it was also aimed to shore up democracy against things like the tyranny of the majority. The notorious “literacy tests” of the Jim Crow era, on the other hand, aimed squarely at the wholesale disenfranchisement of Black people: Examiners essentially made up failing scores in order to deny them the right to vote.
But what about using voting rights as an incentive to curb dropouts? Here in the United States, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds — adding up, over the course of a year, to 1.2 million students who are more likely to be unemployed, on welfare or incarcerated, according to decades of developmental research. Already, it turns out that graduating from high school profoundly increases your likelihood of voting, according to a 2010 Yale University study. The causes are still debatable: Maybe schooling empowers students with the skills to vote, maybe a solid education instills confidence within kids to affect change or perhaps an American government class piqued an interest in political and civic life. “Graduating from high school is one of the best predictors of positive financial and long-term outcomes in life,” adds Lansford.
Of course, any ban on voting would be highly controversial. Voting is a right, not a privilege, as inscribed in the Constitution. Besides, the reasons high schoolers drop out are far more complex than their mental aptitude, says UCSB education professor Russ Rumberger of the California Dropout Research Project. “Dropping out is influenced by a lot of things beyond a kid’s control … an accumulation of things that happen throughout their whole lifetime, essentially starting when they’re born,” he says. These can include special needs, disciplinary issues, poverty or difficulties at home, pregnancy or simply boredom in a school that fails to motivate its students.
A host of proven solutions are better suited to tackling our high school dropout problem — for example, more productive alternatives to suspensions, on-site child care for teenage mothers in school and partnerships with businesses that guarantee jobs after graduation for students whose objective isn’t college, says Lansford.
In the end, however, such a proposal would be discriminatory at best, and “people should be encouraged, not discouraged, from voting,” says Rumberger. Scores of accomplished, talented people and self-made billionaires — from Walt Disney to Robert De Niro to Katy Perry — never graduated from high school. So, our kids are all right. Right?