Keep youngsters in school until 18; Ky. pays dearly for dropouts

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday told the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee Tuesday the issue isn't whether Kentucky can afford to raise the school dropout age from 16 to 18, but rather that the state can't afford not to raise it.

The statistics support his argument.

About 6,000 young Kentuckians drop out of school every year. Each can expect to earn about $7,000 less per year than a former classmate who goes on to get a high school diploma. (Some estimates put the figure as high as $10,000 a year.)

If those 6,000 students got their degrees, stayed in Kentucky and earned the extra $7,000 to $10,000 a year, they would generate more revenue for the state.

They would also be less likely to need public assistance or commit crimes that land them in prison.

Dropouts account for 8 percent of the $6 billion the state spends on Medicaid annually, state Rep. Jeff Greer said during Tuesday's committee meeting.

Nearly 75 percent of the state's prison inmates are dropouts, as well. The cost of housing those inmates has risen to more than $450 million a year.

Over the long term, then, Kentucky stands to reap far more benefits from raising the dropout age than it will cost to keep all the state's youth in school until they're 18.

But the state's bottom line isn't the only reason for raising the dropout age. A better educated work force will improve Kentucky's economic development climate. And a compelling argument can be made that 16- and 17-year-olds are not mature enough to make a decision, often rashly, that can have such negative consequences for their futures.

Last year, the House passed a Greer-sponsored proposal to raise the dropout age. But it died in the Senate. Greer is back again this year with House Bill 225, which was approved by the Appropriations and Revenue Committee Tuesday. (It previously was approved by the House Education Committee.)

HB 225 would raise the dropout age to 17 in the 2015-16 school year and 18 in 2016-17. That gives the state and local school districts plenty of time to prepare for a long overdue move away from a dropout policy that hasn't been changed since 1920.