FRANKFORT — With strong urging by first lady Jane Beshear, the House Education Committee overwhelmingly approved a bill Tuesday to raise the school dropout age from 16 to 18 by 2015.
However, the bill does not provide the $15 million a year needed to fully implement it, said its sponsor, Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg. "That's why we are phasing it in slowly," he said.
The bill requires students to attend school until at least age 17, beginning July 1, 2013, unless the student has completed high school. Beginning July 1, 2014, students must complete high school or stay in school until at least 18.
By July 1, 2015, the state high school graduation rate shall be at least 90 percent, the bill says.
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Twenty-one panel members voted for House Bill 301, but Rep. Bill Farmer, a Lexington Republican who expressed concern that it failed to define how the dropout rate is calculated, cast a "pass" vote.
State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said after the vote that the state is revising its policies and will do a better job of keeping track of students who drop out of school from the ninth grade. He said about 6,500 students dropped out of school in Kentucky last year.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the measure "will receive widespread, bipartisan support on the House floor."
He added: "We're going to have to get the first lady to pass this bill so she can get to work on another. She's pretty good."
Beshear, who also appeared before the committee last week to testify for the bill, said she was delighted with the vote. She stressed that the bill is not the sole answer to the dropout problem, noting that more resources will be needed.
Beshear pledged to "make sure I'm part of some of the solutions that need to take place."
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the committee's action will stimulate the state's economy.
"A high school diploma is, in fact, the best economic stimulus any individual can have in the long term, and the economic benefits extend to the state as well," Brooks said.
If the bill becomes law, Kentucky will join 29 other states and the District of Columbia in requiring students to stay in school until age 18.
Brooks said phasing in the change will help ensure that schools have time to effectively implement programs to help students who would have dropped out otherwise.
According to Brooks, nearly 16,200 students who should have graduated from Kentucky's high schools in 2009 did not get diplomas.
The lost lifetime earnings in Kentucky for that class of dropouts alone totals more than $4.2 billion, he said.
Stumbo told the committee that dropouts earn an average of $7,000 a year less than students with high school diplomas. He also said one of every four dropouts will need public assistance and three of four prisoners don't have high school diplomas.