An unresolved education reform issue tugging at Kentucky lawmakers for the past 20 years is getting renewed attention in Frankfort. The issue? Boosting the state’s dropout age. Monitoring the debate is Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh.
Under current Kentucky law, high school students disenchanted – for whatever reason – with going to class, may dropout at age 16 without parental consent. Twenty years ago, during debate over the Kentucky Education Reform Act, many lawmakers argued for an increase in the dropout age, but it never happened. That’s regrettable, says Rep. Jeff Greer, who’s fighting anew to accomplish the goal.
“Twenty years later, we still have not taken care of what so many fine people back then thought was something that at least should have been considered to be done,” says Greer. “So, I’m excited today that this is a first step in carrying through that initiative.”
Kentucky’s current dropout rate is 3.3%, or about 6,500 students in grades nine through twelve. That’s lower than the national average, but putting Kentucky in the middle of the pack among all states. Rep. Greer says the state must do better, but he’s not trying to force an immediate change. His compulsory attendance bill, which has the support of the Kentucky Department of Education, recommends a gradual phase-in.
“The age would be increased from 16 to 17 on July 1, 2013, and then it will increase to the age of 18 on July 1, 2014,” says Greer. “Mr. Chairman, that is done to give us time to prepare – to prepare to do this right.”
Among those applauding the effort is First Lady Jane Beshear, who joined Greer for the bill’s initial hearing before the House Education Committee.
“As a state, we rise and fall with the successes and failures of our people, and particularly, of our children,” says Mrs. Beshear. “I truly believe we have a moral obligation to ourselves, and one another, to realize our full potential – and most importantly, the potential of our young people.”
Mrs. Beshear, a former Woodford County High School teacher, says dropouts abandon school for many reasons, including course selection, failing grades, conflicts at home or with teachers and administrators, and even boredom.
“Whatever their reason, that outcome is still the same,” says Mrs. Beshear. “Dropouts earn less than $6,800 a year than high school graduates. They’re more likely to battle addiction. They’re more likely to end up in our prison and jail systems. They’re generally unhealthy. And they consume a lot of our social services.”
But the first lady’s support was not enough to spur quick action on the bill. Numerous committee members raised concerns about the legislation, including former House budget chairman Harry Moberly.
“I support, you know, what you’re trying to do, very much,” says Moberly. “And I agree with what Mrs. Beshear says. I just don’t think the second part of your bill is written well enough to assist the schools in what they need to do.”
For one thing, Moberly thinks schools will need more money. Right now, there’s only about $750,000 a year in grant money to help schools with dropout prevention programs. Rep. Bill Farmer wants more emphasis on graduation rates.
“I’m concerned about what we’re going to do with these kids for two more years that have already decided, probably in seventh or eighth grade, that they don’t want to be there,” says Farmer.
Farmer got the last word, as time ran out on the hearing. With committee members bailing out for other meetings, Chairman Carl Rollins deferred action on the compulsory attendance bill until next week.