The good news is legislation to combat Kentucky's dropout problem is moving in the Senate. The bad news is it's local option.
Senate Bill 109's sponsor, Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Erlanger, voices a valid concern: Before 16- and 17-year-olds are brought under the compulsory attendance law, local districts should have programs in place to meet the needs of students who are at risk of not graduating. (To tell the truth, they should have such programs in place already.)
Where we differ with Westwood and the Senate Education Committee is giving districts a choice about raising the dropout age to 18. "Let's let the local superintendents make that decision," Westwood urged the committee.
Lawmakers should think instead of Kentucky's young people. What message would SB 109 send them? That we're willing to let some kids throw away their futures; it all depends on where they live and what's convenient for adults?
In 1989, the state Supreme Court said Kentuckians could no longer be denied an adequate education because of inequality in local wealth. Inequality of expectations can do just as much harm.
"The soft bigotry of low expectations," decried by President George W. Bush, should no longer be enshrined in Kentucky law by allowing 16-year-olds to leave school without a diploma.
That might have made sense 90 years ago, but it now consigns them to a lifetime of dependency. The expectation that students will finish high school prepared for further education or a technical career should be the same for everyone, no matter where they live.
Westwood also says imposing a statewide dropout age of 18, without funding for alternative programs, would impose an unfunded mandate on local districts. True enough. But, face it, folks, educators are already laboring under a multitude of unfunded mandates.
Lawmakers last week were told that Gov. Steve Beshear's proposed budget would force a delay in implementing some of the new education standards established in 2009, when the legislature enacted a major reform with no funding to support it. It's been four years since the legislature has provided money for textbooks.
SB 38, sponsored by Westwood as a companion to his dropout bill, seeks to improve technical career education and mentoring while identifying and better teaching students who fall behind. It would impose unfunded mandates on local schools, the Department of Education and the Education Professional Standards Board.
It also creates a career education trust fund that could accept gifts but would get no state money. Westwood's dropout bill imposes an unfunded mandate on the Department of Education to certify that local districts have programs in place for potential dropouts before raising the mandatory attendance age in that district.
The mandate that should guide this debate is the mandate to educate all children, emphasis on all.
Expectations exert a powerful force — on individual students and educators and school boards. Raising what we expect of them can help youngsters overcome disadvantages of poverty and family dysfunction. Research shows that even students who don't graduate earn higher wages as a result of more years of schooling.
The Senate is on the right track. It just needs to raise its sights a bit higher.