Kentucky House Approves Bill to Raise Dropout Age

Feb 17, 2012

By Bob Flynn
The Winchester Sun

Addressing Kentucky’s high rate of students dropping out of high school has been a concern for many Kentucky legislators for years, and the problem has drawn a lot of interest during the current legislative session.

Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would increase the age at which a student could drop out of high school to from 16 to 18-years-old.

House Bill 216, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg, and supported by Gov. Steve Beshear, passed 87-10 after more than an hour of debate. It would increase the dropout age for all school districts in phases over a five year period, moving up to 17 by 2016 and then 18 in 2017.

The bill, similar to one that failed last year, must still be approved in the Senate, which two weeks ago approved its own dropout bill. Unlike the House bill, Senate Bill 109 would not mandate an across-the-board raise in the dropout age, but instead would allow individual school districts to choose whether or not to raise the dropout age in their districts.

Proponents of House Bill 216 called it the “right thing to do,” and cited current Kentucky Department of Education statistics which showed that in 2010, more than 6,200 students — 3.19 percent, of the state’s high school students, dropped out of high school.They also said Kentucky’s current dropout age of 16 was too young for students to make responsible decisions.

Critics of the House bill argued that it was an unfunded mandate that took away parental rights and said statistics showed that other states that had increased their dropout age had not shown improvement in graduation rates.

Rep. Donna Mayfield, R-Winchester, said she supported some type of dropout bill and hoped that this year legislation would get passed.

“I personally feel very strongly about this because every statistic that I’ve ever seen — the math does not lie — dropouts do not do very well. They are harming themselves and there is no denying it,” Mayfield said. “Being a mother, I know that 16-year-olds do not make the best decisions. Kids need to stay in school. The job market is so competitive right now that it’s hard enough to get a job with a college degree, let alone after dropping out of high school. Those kids need every bit of help we can give them right now, so I hope legislation gets done this year.”

R. J. Palmer, D-Winchester, who sits on the Senate Education Committee agreed with Mayfield and said he thinks legislation might be possible this year because for the first time Senate leaders are willing to discuss a “mandatory attendance bill.”

“I actually think the House bill is better because I think it’s more appropriate for the legislature to make a firm response to the problem. No one can argue that two more years of education won’t benefit the students,” Palmer said. “This is the first real progress we’ve seen. It’s been killed without discussion before, so at least we are talking about doing it, so I’m hopeful we’ll come to an agreement this time.”

Clark County Superintendent Elaine Farris said she to thought dropout legislation is needed, and she favors the House proposal.

“I like the idea of the drop out age being raised. I don’t like the idea of letting local districts make the decision because it is going to be inequitable from district-to-district across the state if it goes to age 18. What would keep a kid from dropping out of my school if we raise it, and going to the next county where it might still be at 16? If it is mandated across-the-board I think it would be better,” Farris said.

She’s heard the argument that raising the dropout age would be expensive for school districts, but Farris said the alternative is more expensive.

“I hear people say it is going to be expensive for school districts if it is raised. Well, if they drop out of school it is going to be expensive for everybody,” Farris said. “What ever way you go, you are going to pay. You either pay now and keep them in school, or you pay later because they have dropped out. I would rather pay now.”

Similar dropout legislation passed the Democratic-led House the last three years, but the Republican-led Senate has not allowed hearings on the measures the past two years.

But this year could be different. After Thursday’s House vote, Senate Education Committee Chairman Ken Winters, R-Murray, said he was willing to discuss a compromise between the Senate and House positions.