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Major changes in education tend to occur in lurches rather than in incremental baby steps. That’s largely because it takes time to build a consensus about what’s important for our children’s future. The last major lurch was the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) enacted in 1990. Tweaks to KERA during the past 20 years have included changes in testing and more emphasis on reading, math and science.
The next lurch will be to increase the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 18. The Kentucky House of Representatives voted to approve the age increase in the legislative session just concluded. The Senate didn’t vote on the bill, not because any Senator thought it was a bad idea to keep kids in school to age 18. Rather, some Senators questioned whether high schools have sufficient resources and programs to educate kids who would otherwise drop out early.
A recent guest editorial in this newspaper called the age 18 dropout plan “an idea that doesn’t work”. I respectfully disagree. This is an idea that must work. Some of the best reasons for increasing the dropout age were pointed out in the editorial by the write who opposes the plan. First, he recognizes it is essential to have a highly educated workforce in today’s competitive worldwide marketplace. Second, he points out that a high school dropout costs society at least $205,418 in food stamps, Medicaid and crime related costs over a lifetime compared with high school graduates.
Teaching kids who don’t want to stay in high school is tough work. Some will be disruptive and some will refuse to learn. Those same students were probably disruptive and refused to learn at an earlier age, so why don’t we let them dropout at age 14 or 15? It’s because we all recognize that education is essential and that kids should not be allowed to make the wrong choice. Just because some parents don’t care, that’s no excuse for abandoning the kids.
The writer claims that staying in school to age 18 is “a responsibility that should have come from the parents.” I agree. But what if the parents don’t act responsibility? We don’t allow parents to make other important decisions for children. For example, age for driving a car, age for drinking alcoholic beverages, age for marriage. We have laws setting standards.
The writer complains that increasing the dropout age is just a well-intentioned idea where we throw the responsibility to “the government”. Education is not some plot carried out by “the government” somewhere in Frankfort or Washington. Education is schools like Washington County High School. The “government” at WCHS is the principal, Mr. Terrell, and teachers like Ms. McConnell, Mr. Hudson and Ms. Peters. We can debate whether our education programs should be improved. I suspect Mr. Terrell and his teaching staff would say, yes, they should. It seems to me there is not debating that kids who stay in school to age 18, even if they’d rather not, are better prepared for the future than age 16 dropouts.
Both the Senate and the House agree. Sen. Ken Winters, former president of Campbellsville University, is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. His plan for raising the school attendance age is similar to the bill enacted by the House. His plan also puts more emphasis on career and technical education, programs that should have more appeal to potential dropouts who may not be interested in English and history.
The editorial writer recommends “an accelerated 3-year high school diploma”. Good idea. Several years ago, WCHS seniors were allowed to take courses at St. Catharine College. Too bad that plan was abandoned. There are enough smart seniors at WCHS to fill several classrooms at St. Catharine. It’s a good way for high school seniors to get a head start in college.
The same writer who doesn’t want the government to impose school attendance to age 18 recommends that the government enact a law saying “No high school diploma? No driver’s license!” Denying driver’s licenses would, certainly, be a powerful stick to hold over students’ heads. However, kids also have to learn that dropping out is sometimes not an option. For example, we who had military service couldn’t just dropout because it got tough. Family responsibilities keep us from dropping out. An unpleasant job sometimes needs to be completed without dropping out. Staying in school is not just about learning English and history.
Most states adjoining Kentucky have higher attendance standards. Virginia and Ohio kids must stay in school to age 18. Indiana allows withdrawal from school before age 18 under certain conditions. Tennessee and Illinois have age 17 requirements. West Virginia, like Kentucky now, is age 16. The dropout rate in Kentucky was only 3.39% for 2007-08, the last year posted on the Kentucky Department of Education website. The rate for Washington County is even better, only 1.92%.
Hardly anyone would argue that dropping out of school at age 16 is a good idea. The Senate and the House are in agreement with the concept of compulsory attendance to age 18, but have not agreed on a specific plan. Even if the legislation had passed, compulsory school attendance to age 17 would not have begun until the 2013-14 school year and age 18 the following year. Hopefully, an agreement will be reached in the next session.