Districts Rush To Approve Higher Dropout Age

Jul 1, 2013

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The rush among Kentucky school boards to raise their school dropout age turned into an early stampede - set off at least partly by a cash enticement.

Local school boards started voting last week to increase the dropout age from 16 to 18, and within the first two days a whopping 54 school districts did so. By Monday morning, 78 districts were on board, closing in on the number needed to guarantee the policy change is applied statewide.

Gov. Steve Beshear's office and education officials dubbed it the "Blitz to 96" - the number of districts needed to sign on to the change to make it effective statewide.

A compromise that helped get the measure through the General Assembly allows districts to make their own decisions on raising the dropout age, but with a provision that once 55 percent of the districts did so, the change would be made statewide within four years.

"I'm ecstatic that so many school districts are taking immediate steps to help students build a better future by encouraging them to stay in school through graduation," said Beshear, whose wife, Jane, championed the legislation to increase the dropout age.

Jane Beshear, a former teacher, said districts approving the change are "putting faith in their students and placing a high value on education."

Among districts voting to raise their dropout age, the change takes effect in the 2015-16 school year.

The cash enticement to embrace the change came in the form of $10,000 state grants, meant to help districts with the costs of raising the minimum dropout age.

At the outset, the one-time grants were offered to the first 57 districts embracing the change. The $570,000 pool of money came from a federal dropout-prevention grant.

There were reports some school boards planned midnight meetings to make sure they would receive the grant, which compelled the Kentucky Department of Education to reassure districts that such extraordinary action wasn't necessary.

Then Beshear last week kicked in an additional $390,000 from planning funds appropriated to the governor in the state budget.

That expanded pool of money guarantees that the first 96 districts accepting the higher dropout age will receive the $10,000 payments - coinciding with the number of districts needed to kick in statewide implementation.

Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said the planning funds are meant for projects "that are of long-term benefit to the state."

House Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover had previously questioned the propriety of providing the initial $570,000 of grants, especially at a time when the state lacks sufficient funds to purchase enough textbooks for students.

Beshear responded at the time that the money was coming from a fund for dropout prevention, so the money wouldn't have been used for textbooks.

Rebecca Blessing, a state education department spokeswoman, acknowledged the grants played a role in the groundswell of acceptance for the policy change, but said she hoped local school officials "aren't doing it just for the money." The size of most school boards' budgets makes the $10,000 offer "fairly minimal," she said.

"We'd like to think that districts are doing it for the right reason, and that is to make sure that all of the kids in their districts are prepared for life after high school," she said.

The Leslie County school district in southeastern Kentucky was part of the initial wave of districts that approved the higher dropout age.

"We think the right thing to do is to try to keep our kids in school, and try to ensure they have the best chance to be successful," said Anthony Little, the director of pupil personnel in the Appalachian district.

Little said the grant would be helpful but added, "I don't know that it will go very far." The district plans to use the $10,000 grant to bolster programs meant to help keep struggling students on a path toward earning high school diplomas in four years, he said.

Leslie County's dropout rate was under 2 percent for the 2011-12 school year, below the statewide high school dropout rate.

"We can certainly improve and we're striving every day to ... keep kids in school," Little said. "Hopefully this is one more tool that will help keep kids in school and keep them on track to graduate on time."

State officials said that high school graduates live longer, are less likely to be teen parents and are more likely to raise healthier, better-educated children.

Kentucky had a 2.5 percent dropout rate among public school students in grades 9 through 12 in the 2011-12 school year, amounting to 4,922 students, according to state education department statistics. In the 2007-08 school year, the dropout rate was 3.3 percent, or 6,472 students.