Bill raising school drop-out age to 18 advanced

jwarren@herald-leader.comMarch 4, 2009 

FRANKFORT — Backers of a proposal to raise Kentucky's compulsory school-attendance age to 18 are again pushing the measure in Frankfort, but their chances for success this year look slim.

The House Education Committee cleared the bill Tuesday morning, but not without questions highlighting concerns that have halted the proposal from becoming law in previous years.

"In our current financial situation, I'm not sure we can address that because I'm not sure we can afford that," Gov. Steve Beshear said in an interview Tuesday.

"But it is something I think we ought to continue discussing and try to find some answers to — whether that's raising the dropout age or finding some other answers to lower the dropout rate," he said.

Currently, Kentucky youngsters can drop out of school at 16 with parental consent. House Bill 189 would raise that to 17 by July 1, 2010, and to 18 effective July 1, 2011.

Legislative economists said they can't determine how much the proposal would cost the state, but suggested that it would require at least $15 million a year to educate those who otherwise would have dropped out.

Raising the minimum dropout age would keep more children in school, but it's also likely that some parents would try to get around the law by establishing home schools, said Brett Johnson, director of pupil personnel for the Harlan County school district.

He already sees that with the dropout age at 16. Harlan County has the highest dropout rate in the state. "In the real world, if they don't want to go to school and they're below 16, they go to home school," he said. However, some parents who say they are establishing home schools aren't educating their children, Johnson said.

Parents can face charges of educational neglect in some cases for not sending children to school, and in others, children can be charged with being habitually truant.

The bill's backers say raising the age would help keep Kentucky youngsters in school and out of trouble. The concept, however, has had rough sledding in the General Assembly for the past 12 years.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, has tried without success since 1997 to get it passed. The measure continued to draw questions Tuesday.

Yonts and other supporters told committee members that keeping students in school longer would help them get better jobs, boosting incomes statewide by $37 million a year. And, because youngsters who drop out of school are more likely to get into trouble with the law, $50 million in criminal justice costs could be saved, they said.

But Rep. Hubert Collins, D-Wittensville, countered that the bill might backfire by keeping students in school who don't want to be there. They might become a distraction for students who want to be in class and learning, Collins and other critics contended.

Yonts said the bill is "no magic bullet" and must be accompanied by measures to keep students engaged and interested in education.

Bill Dotson, director of pupil personnel at Pike County Public Schools, said the real problem is the ease with which parents can take their children out of school.

"Right now a lot of kids are using home school as an excuse to drop out," Dotson said. He said parents simply send a letter to the school saying that they are home-schooling their child. Parents don't have to provide a curriculum, and there is little follow-up by the schools.

"What we need is some legislation that is going to provide better guidelines and requirements for home schooling," he said. "They should have to provide some kind of proof that they're getting an education."

One big reason for kids dropping out is that parents or guardians don't stress the value of education, said Jeff Woods, director of pupil personnel for the Clay County school system.

"If the culture of that family is not to stress education, it will probably continue," he said.

Yonts said about 47 percent of students who drop out say they did so because they weren't interested in school. About 38 percent say they were already failing their classes.

Backers contended that Kentucky could reap several benefits by making school compulsory up to age 18. Keeping children in school longer would boost their earning power by about $37 million, they said, while steering youngsters into productive jobs and away from legal trouble.

House Bill 189 ultimately was passed despite the "no" votes of committee members Collins and Reps. Linda Belcher, D-Shepherdsville, and Ted Edmonds, D-Jackson. All others present voted in favor of the bill except for Reps. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, and Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, who voted "pass."

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