PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Amanda Schaff sat next to her alternative-school principal, Stephanie Hageman, on Tuesday as Hageman testified against a proposal to let South Dakota teens quit school at age 16. Then the Watertown student spoke about the difference another chance made in her life.

“This school feels like a second home to me,” Schaff told the panel of senators.

After hearing from several more opponents, the Senate Education Committee listened to Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck rebut the arguments they made against his plan to take South Dakota back to pre-2009, the year the Legislature raised to 18 the age when students can leave high school.

Schoenbeck’s goal is to get trouble-makers out of the school system, so that teachers can teach and students can learn without interruption. “The current environment victimizes teachers. It victimizes students,” he said.

Schoenbeck said many school administrators want the change. He pointed to the mid-2010s when the Daugaard administration closed the state’s juvenile corrections facilities, essentially turning high schools into de facto replacements. ”Not a single thing happened.”

The committee put more weight instead on testimony from people representing statewide K-12 education organizations, such as Rob Monson for the School Administrators of South Dakota, Wade Pogany from the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, and Sandra Waltman with the classroom-teachers bargaining group, South Dakota Education Association.

Dianna Miller, representing the Large School Group, said students couldn’t take the high-school equivalency test for a diploma until age 18. She acknowledged that rural high schools with small enrollments can’t set up alternative high schools such as the one Schaff attends at Watertown, but she said a regional approach might be a solution. She also noted that Schoenbeck’s bill didn’t require a parental sign-off.

Miller said school systems can’t make some parents act like parents, so the school sometimes becomes like a family for a student. She said age 16 was too young — “At 15 you are not able to make good career decisions.” — and said the state Department of Education is rolling out programs intended to help students who are rebelling or struggling with mental-health issues.

“We cannot get up here and say, give up on kids,” Miller said. “We want a pathway that helps us deal with all kids.” 

The committee voted 5-1 to stop SB-65 from proceeding. Republican Sen. Tom Pischke called for setting it aside. He noted that young people can’t go to universities, join the military or take the diploma test at age 16. But he agreed with Schoenbeck that schools seem to be seeing more havoc in recent years.

“I’m just not sure this is the correct bill to fix it,” Pischke said.