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The West Virginia Senate passed a bill 33-0 Wednesday that weakens a driving-related incentive for high schoolers to stay in school and complete course work.

The legislation, House Bill 4535, now heads back to the House of Delegates.

Under current law, the following students are generally banned from getting their licenses until they’re 18: those who drop out without then pursuing a GED; those who exceed 10 unexcused absences in a row; those who rack up 15 unexcused absences overall in a school year; or those who aren’t making what current law calls “satisfactory academic progress.”

Satisfactory academic progress is defined currently as completing course work sufficient to graduate within five years, or by age 19, whichever comes first.

But these drop-outs, absent or struggling students have the right under current law to a hearing before a public school or private school official, whichever is applicable.

These school officials can allow students to nonetheless get their licenses due to “circumstances beyond [their] control” — defined as health, family responsibilities, needing a job to support themselves or others, or anything else that school officials, in their sole discretion, deem a valid excuse.

As it passed the House, HB 4535 would have newly allowed students to drop out at 17, not show up to school or just not make satisfactory academic progress and still get their licenses — without any exemption from school officials needed.

Seventeen is the allowed dropout age in West Virginia, except for in Cabell or Monroe counties, where it’s 18. There is already no education-related prohibition in current law on 18-year-olds getting a driver’s license.

The Senate Wednesday amended the House version to return the requirements, but only up to age 17.

In the Senate version, struggling or absentee students 17 or younger would no longer, just like in the House version, be at risk of being barred from driving. But the Senate version would put them at risk of getting “restricted” licenses.

These licenses would constrain them “to driving for work or medical purposes or educational or religious pursuits,” as the bill puts it.

The Senate passed this version with no opposition and only Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, absent. It now heads back to the House, which must decide whether to agree with or reject the Senate’s changes.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said, “We heard testimony from one of the lead sponsors that these kids who are not performing satisfactorily or dropping off sometimes have very legitimate reasons to do so, and they need to drive in order to take care of their families.”

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