Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear made a pitch Tuesday for a bill aimed at gradually raising the state’s school dropout age from 16 to 18.
The measure didn’t receive a vote after some members of the House Education Committee voiced concerns about whether it tackles the root causes of dropping out. They also said state assistance to school districts for dropout prevention programs are underfunded.
Committee Chairman Carl Rollins said he expected the bill to be reconsidered next week.
Beshear, a former school teacher who has championed education issues, said that raising the dropout age makes sense from business and social standpoints.
High school dropouts make considerably less money and are more likely to battle addictions, end up in prison and rely on public assistance, she said. A better-educated work force enhances Kentucky’s competitiveness in luring business, she said.
“With this type of legislation, we’re showing Kentucky’s children that we have an interest in them, and that finishing high school is a goal that they need to hold dear,” she said.
Supporters said the bill wasn’t a cure-all but called it an important step forward.
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 legislation would raise Kentucky’s minimum dropout age from 16 to 17 effective July 1, 2013. A year later, the minimum dropout age would go to 18.
The goal of reducing dropouts was widely applauded, but some lawmakers questioned whether the state Education Department has effectively identified the causes of dropouts and formulated policies to prevent them and to guarantee at-risk students are getting a quality education.
“If we don’t put strategies into place, I don’t see how we’re going to help these young people by keeping them in two more years,” said Rep. Linda Belcher, DShepherdsville.
The bill would give the Education Department more flexibility in distributing state grants to school districts for dropout prevention programs.
Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, said what’s needed is “a better plan about how to move forward instead of just telling the department to keep doing what they’re doing now and giving them more discretion. Because I don’t think the results at this point have been very good.”
Belcher expressed doubts that the grant money will be sufficient to tackle dropout rates.
Supporters said phasing in the higher dropout age will help schools and the state prepare effective programs to keep at-risk students in school and interested in class work.
Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, said there should be an emphasis on vocational training for students at risk of leaving school prematurely.
“If the kids at school can see that they are getting job ready, that they’re getting a skill, they might be a little bit more inclined to stick around and finish,” he said.
The legislation is House Bill 301.