Supporters of legislation that would raise the school dropout age are trying to tamp down concerns that the bill would cause unfunded mandates and lead to more students cruising to "completion" rather than graduation.
Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear was among those who testified Tuesday before the House Education Committee on behalf of House Bill 301. The latest version of that bill would raise the high school dropout age from 16 to 17 starting with the graduating class of 2017 and to 18 for those in the class of 2018 and beyond.
"These days our young people need at least a high school diploma and, in most cases, more than that," Beshear said.
She told lawmakers that the legislation provides a framework to allow the Department of Education and school districts to develop creative programs that keep students engaged in school through graduation. However, the "framework" comes with no money to fund new programs.
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Beshear and key backers of the bill will return to the House Education Committee next Tuesday at 2 p.m. to take more questions from lawmakers before a vote on the bill. The committee ran out of time Tuesday morning.
Among the key issues raised during the hearing were questions about funding. The bill doesn't call for any new money to pay for programs that would engage students who would have otherwise dropped out. The Department of Education currently awards $750,000 in grants for such programs.
"I think you're going to need more than $750,000 to deal with this," Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, told the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg.
Rep. Linda Belcher, D-Shepherdsville, ticked off a list of some reasons students surveyed in one district gave for dropping out, such as boredom, failing schools and conflicts with teachers. She said she wanted to hear specific ideas from the Department of Education about ways to address those core issues with alternative programs for students.
"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," she said.
Her thoughts dovetailed with what Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, described as his "serious, serious concerns with the bill." Specifically, he said he wanted Kentucky to avoid giving "certificates of completion" to students.
"What we are truly looking for here is a graduation rate, not a completion rate," he said. "I'm concerned about what we're going to do with these kids for two more years (when) they've decided in seventh or eighth grade that they don't want to be there."
Greer answered that the overarching goal of the legislation is to bolster the graduation rate. One reason the bill calls for phasing in the higher dropout age is to give schools time to implement innovative programs aimed at keeping students invested in their own education, Greer said.
"It's not a perfect solution, nor is it the sole solution to the dropout problem," Greer said of the bill. "But it's a crucial first step."
Greer told the committee that of Kentucky's seven neighbor states, only West Virginia and Missouri have lower criteria for students to leave school before graduating.
"I'm embarrassed by that," he said. "To our kids, we're sending the signal — go ahead and give up."
After the committee meeting ended, Greer said he would continue to talk with some of the lawmakers who raised issues. But he remained hopeful that the legislation, with the backing of the governor and first lady, would pass this year after falling short in previous sessions.
In at least 30 states the dropout age is 17 or older.