Education Law

Compulsory Education Laws in North Carolina

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Students in North Carolina can legally drop out of school when they’re 16 years old.

Most people know that dropping out of school is likely to bring financial consequences down the road. But they may not realize that dropouts (and their parents) can suffer legal consequences as well. North Carolina (like every state) has “compulsory education” laws that require parents to keep their children in school up to a certain age or until high school graduation. Parents might face penalties for violating these laws, and their children could end up in juvenile court.

Below is a summary of the laws in North Carolina that deal with compulsory education, the consequences of dropping out, and high school equivalency diplomas. (Because laws can change at any time, it’s always a good idea to check the current statute.)

Requirements for Dropping Out Legally

North Carolina law allows students who are at least 16 years old to drop out before graduating (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-378). In a pilot program, the state has allowed two school districts to raise the dropout age to 18.

Penalties for Parents of Truant Students

When students drop out of school before they turn 16, they may be considered truants. After notifying the parents about unexcused absences, the school will determine whether the parents have made a “good faith effort” to keep their kids attending classes. If the answer is no, the parents could face criminal charges for violating the state’s compulsory education laws. Once they’re found guilty of the Class 1 misdemeanor, the parents may have to pay a fine and perform community service (or imprisonment for subsequent convictions). (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 115C-378, 115C-380, 15A-1340.23.)

Legal Consequences for Truant Students

Although North Carolina law doesn’t impose fines or other penalties on students who’ve dropped out before they turn 16, it does provide that certain truant students could ultimately come under the juvenile court’s supervision if school officials decide that their parents tried to keep the child in school (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§115C-378, 7B-302).

High School Equivalency Tests

Former students who didn’t graduate from high school can obtain a High School Equivalency Diploma by passing one of three three equivalency tests offered in North Carolina. Anyone who is 16 or older can take the test, but 16- and 17-year-olds must fill out extra paperwork in order to be eligible.

Driving Without a Diploma

North Carolina residents who are under 18 years old and don’t have a high school or equivalent diploma can’t get a full driver’s license unless they meet certain requirements. Among other things, they need to show:

  • they're still going to school or aren’t able to make progress toward a diploma, or
  • their families would suffer “substantial hardship” if the children didn’t have a license.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-11(n).)

Getting Help

If your child is under 16 and has stopped going to school despite your best efforts, it’s a good idea to contact the school. A counselor or other school official may be able to help or at least recommend resources and options.

If your child has been away from classes long enough to meet the definition of a truant, consider speaking with a lawyer. An attorney experienced in education or criminal law should be able to explain the legal consequences that both you and your child might face, as well as the steps you can take to avoid those consequences.

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