In Depth: Dropout Bill Faces Uncertainty In Special Session

by Tony McVeigh on March 22, 2011

When Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear called a special session on Medicaid last week, he also asked lawmakers to raise the state’s dropout age. Medicaid appears to be moving, but the compulsory attendance bill has hit a stone wall.

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Frankfort Sen. Julian Carroll says when he was Kentucky’s governor, he supported creation of an alternative schools program when he learned Jefferson County alone had more than 23,000 drop outs. But Carroll says the program was later defunded by the general assembly. When he left office in 1979, Carroll says Kentucky’s dropout rate was 35 percent. Thirty two years later, it’s 25 percent. Carroll says if Kentucky were a business, the people heading it would have been indicted by now for wasting taxpayer dollars.

“Our taxpayers know we’re short of money and we’re absolutely throwing money down the drain by not solving this problem,” said Carroll.

Carroll’s comments came during a hearing in Frankfort sponsored by the Senate Democratic Caucus. Concerned that a compulsory attendance bill is seeing no action in the Senate during the special session, the minority caucus held an informational hearing on the bill. Among those testifying was state Chamber of Commerce President Dave Adkisson.

“As Baby Boomers are retiring, and the number of jobs that require higher skills is going up, the number of jobs with lower skills going down, our gap gets wider,” said Adkisson. “And that’s why we’re addressing this. And I certainly appreciate what the first lady has done and appreciate all of you for trying to move the ball down the field.”

First Lady Jane Beshear (pictured with Rep. Jeff Greer) is one of the most ardent supporters of the bill, which raises the state’s dropout age from 16 to 18 by 2016. The measure has twice cleared the House, only to die in the Senate. It passed the House for a third time last week, on an 87-13 vote, but still awaits a committee assignment in the Senate. That frustrates Mrs. Beshear.

“We sent a letter both during the regular session, and in this special session, to be able to hopefully proceed and see it actually be voted on the floor,” said Mrs. Beshear. “I have not had a single response from anyone, to either letter that was sent.”

Murray Sen. Ken Winters, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says he doesn’t remember why the first lady’s letter received no response in the regular session, but he’s working on a reply to her latest letter. But Winters says Senate Republicans remain opposed to the dropout bill, which they consider an unfunded mandate because it provides local districts with no money for alternative schools.

“Maryland, I believe, has something comparable to our numbers,” said Winters. “They estimated it costs them about $200 million. Estimates on what it might be in Kentucky range anywhere from $40 million to over a $100 million for alternative schools and all the services that are necessary.”

But Mrs. Beshear says the unfunded mandate argument is a red herring, because high school graduates earn more, pay more taxes, use fewer social services and are less likely to end up in prison. And she says numerous districts are already operating successful alternative school programs within tight current budgets.

“There is that determination to make changes within the system of many of our districts,” says Mrs. Beshear. “What we need to do is make sure it happens across the board. And hopefully, when our economic situation changes down the line, there will be more funding to be able to appropriate.”

But Sen. Winters doubts the bill is going anywhere. He says data from 15 other states seem to indicate that raising the dropout age has little effect. And he says emails are pouring in from Kentucky teachers and administrators who oppose the bill. Mrs. Beshear says she won’t give up, and before adjourning their hearing, Senate Democrats approved a resolution in support of “any effort to reduce the drop out rate in Kentucky.”

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