State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday described a high school dropout’s fate as a prisoner while touting a bill Tuesday that eventually would require Kentucky students to stay in school until reaching age 18. The measure, which would gradually raise the dropout age from 16 to 18, easily cleared the House Education Committee after winning endorsements from a lineup that included Holliday, first lady Jane Beshear and House Speaker Greg Stumbo.
Holliday recalled that as a school administrator years ago, he tried to keep a student in school but within a few weeks the youngster “tested my limits” and was expelled.
“The only problem was about three weeks later he … robbed a store and ended up spending most of his life in prison,” Holliday said.
Holliday said that school initiatives, including alternative programs, have sprung up in recent years to try to keep troubled students in school and on course toward graduation.
Under the legislation, Kentucky’s minimum dropout age would go from 16 to 17 effective July 1, 2013. A year later, the minimum dropout age would go to 18.
Beshear, a former school teacher, called it a “graduation bill.” She said it would help raise educational standards — a key to raising income levels and economic development opportunities in the state.
“The graduation bill says to the children of this state that once they start school in Kentucky, they’re expected to finish,” she said. “It tells them that we value high educational standards. And it lets them know that we will not allow them to give up on themselves.”
Nearly 6,500 Kentucky students dropped out in the 2007-2008 academic year, about 3 percent of the state’s public high school population, according to the state Department of Education.
That rate was below the national average, it said.
The bill would set the goal of a state high school graduation rate of at least 90 percent by July 1, 2015. Kentucky had a high school graduation rate of 84.5 percent in the 2007-2008 academic year — ranking in the middle of the pack nationally, according to the department.
Under the federal law known as “No Child Left Behind,” states had to set yearly graduation rate goals with the ultimate goal of reaching nearly 100 percent by 2014.
The bill also sets a goal for counties to reduce by 30 percent the number of adults between ages 16 and 24 without a high school diploma or GED between 2010 and 2016.
Also under the bill, the state Education Department would make an annual report to state lawmakers on progress in meeting those goals.
The bill directs the Education Department to support statewide strategies to prevent students from dropping out. State grants distributed to school districts for dropout prevention would be targeted to those “promising practices” that could spread across the state.
Stumbo said school dropouts are often likely to end up on public assistance or in prison. Those public costs could eventually be lessened by keeping them in school, he said.
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, acknowledged that those students can pose discipline problems, but said that keeping them in school is “worth the effort. I believe that some of these kids will end up becoming productive members of society.