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By TOM MARTIN
Lexington– By 2018, fewer than 10 percent of Kentucky employers will accept job applicants who lack a high school diploma. This Georgetown University forecast from the study Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018 offers a clear warning to Kentucky policy makers, educators, employers, students, parents - anyone with a stake in the well-being of the commonwealth’s economy: education is essential to well-being.
“In today’s world, you can’t get a job without at least a high school diploma. The military will not accept you without a high school diploma,” said Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear, a former teacher who is spearheading the latest effort to win the General Assembly’s approval to raise the state’s compulsory schooling age from 16 to 18. Kids who don’t graduate from high school “are the people that we find many times homeless. They absorb most of the social services. They’re most often less healthy. And often they end up in our prisons and jails,” she said in an interview with Business Lexington.
Many students who don’t graduate from high school find themselves on a difficult path in life that too often leads to poverty and little chance of meaningful employment, echoed Fayette County Schools Supt. Tom Shelton, a member of first lady Beshear’s “Graduate Kentucky” task force, the group that proposed the age change. “We cannot knowingly allow this for a teenager. We owe it to all children to give them the best chance of a fruitful and productive adult life, which begins with a high school diploma.”
Dropouts from the class of 2008, for example, will cost Kentucky almost $4.2 billion in lost wages over their lifetimes, according to the estimations of the Alliance for Excellent Education.
While previous attempts to reset the age at 18 have failed, a statewide survey now shows Kentucky parents overwhelmingly supportive with more than eight in ten (85 percent) responding to The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky’s Kentucky Parent Survey in favor. Among them, 77 percent indicated they “strongly” favor raising the dropout age to 18. Fewer than one in six parents (15 percent) said they opposed increasing Kentucky’s dropout age.
Legislation sponsored in the House by Democrat Rep. Jeff Greer and in the Senate by Republican Jimmy Higdon will be proposed in the 2013 General Assembly getting underway today in Frankfort. It is backed by the state Board of Education and has the endorsement of Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, who cited earlier education legislation as a driver. “Senate Bill 1 mandates us to ensure that all Kentucky’s public school students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college and the workplace. Allowing students to leave school at age 16 is contrary to that mandate.”
Many states that have raised the compulsory school attendance age to 18 continue to struggle with high dropout rates: Nevada, 58 percent; Louisiana, 43 percent; California, 37 percent, for example. “It’s because these laws get obeyed in the breach,” asserted Richard Innes, Education Analyst for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a guest on the Jan. 28 edition of KET’s Kentucky Tonight. “It’s almost like prohibition in the 1930’s, everybody said ‘yeah, great idea pass the law’, and promptly disobeyed it in large numbers, and that’s what’s happening in these states.”
Noted Nancy Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, simple comparisons between states do not take into account complex demographic factors that influence graduation rates, such as poverty, parental education levels and historic trends and comparisons with states that have similar demographics. “Such comparisons also do not consider what or if those states had comprehensive programs in place to support students and educators when they raised their dropout ages,” she added. “Kentucky has a comprehensive support system and strategies in place to support raising the dropout age that includes college/career readiness, alternative programs, innovation and career and technical education.”
Since 1934, Kentucky kids have been legally permitted to leave school at age 16. And yet, Kentucky has in recent years seen a steady decline in its dropout rate from 3.3 percent in 2008 to 2.4 percent in 2011.
If Kentucky’s dropout rate has been falling, why is it necessary to raise the age to 18? “Because we still have about 6,000 children that drop out every year,” said Jane Beshear. “In my opinion, that’s 6,000 too many. It’s a drain on their lives and it’s a drain on the state.”
Critics of the raised age contend that it would impose an unfunded mandate that many school districts cannot afford.
“Some school districts have said to us in the past, ‘this will cost us more money if we keep these children in school,’” said Beshear. “But the fact is, none of our schools are at full capacity right now. And for children who drop out, those schools are losing SEEK formula funds for each of those students. So in truth, the schools are losing money because they’re allowing kids to leave.”
Another frequent question: what about the 16 year old who doesn’t want to go to school, is out of control and is a disruptive distraction to fellow students?
State Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, chair of the Senate Education Committee believes any legislation should leave it up to each school district to determine whether raising its dropout age is in the best interests of the community. “They need to be able to come up with the teachers that teach those types of students and the school place where they’re going to have it because you can’t keep them in a population where they’re already distracting in classes, causing disturbances and things of that nature,” he said on KET’s Kentucky Tonight. “So my concern is that we go to our districts who better know what they have and find out what’s going on there, but also let them work on trying to put these positions in place. And then once they are there they can make that decision and go ahead through their local school board and raise the age.”
Many Kentucky school districts, however, have become highly focused on college/career readiness, alternative programs, innovation and career and technical education and, as a result, “have been succeeding in reducing dropout rates and getting would-be dropouts ready for college or careers,” according to the Education Department’s Rodriguez “All of these programs are very student-centered to ensure that each student has an education plan – an Individual Learning Plan – and is engaged in taking responsibility for his or her learning. The programs happening in Kentucky will work to lower dropout rates if we give them time.”
Stu Silberman, the former Fayette Co. Schools superintendent, emphasized that “it’s so important to look at this as a package and never look at it as raising the age alone, because it’s just not a silver bullet to do it by itself.” Silberman, now executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence also appeared on the KET program. “I advocate for having a complete package. Raising the dropout age is just a cornerstone of that. It starts the conversation.”
“In Kentucky we have a cultural problem,” offered state Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, chair of the House Education Committee and another guest on Kentucky Tonight. “We have a lot of people in this state who do not appreciate the value of education. And I think by changing the dropout age and doing the other things as well, that we can send a message to all of our families that education is important, it’s important that your children stay in school until they graduate.”