By Linda Blackford and Jack Brammer
FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear and first lady Jane Beshear praised the Kentucky legislature Monday for approving a bill that lets school districts raise the dropout age from 16 to 18.
The Beshears have pushed the legislature to raise the dropout age for several years, following similar efforts since at least 1998.
“Today is a very good day — for our schools, for our students, and for the future workforce of our Commonwealth,” the Beshears said in a statement. “This bill will help to break the cycle of poverty, close the revolving door of prison and improve the quality of life for all Kentuckians.”
About 6,000 Kentucky students drop out of school before their 18th birthday each year, the Beshears said.
The bill would allow school districts to decide when they want to adopt the policy. After 55 percent of districts in the state have adopted the practice, remaining districts would be given four years to implement the change.
Giving districts several years to raise the dropout age was a legislative compromise to help schools prepare better alternative programs to help at-risk students.
The measure passed 87-10 in the House, but only after an hourlong debate on the House floor. The Senate then concurred with the House.
Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, said the bill didn’t go far enough fast enough.
“We are responsible for making policy decisions about moving this state forward, but this bill leaves it up to a time when 55 percent of the counties understand why this bill is important and take it upon themselves to implement it,” Meeks said.
Much of the debate was over a statement by Rep. Ben Waide, R-Madisonville, who said research from other states showed that similar dropout-prevention bills didn’t work, because many at-risk students are “violent offenders.”
Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg, disputed Waide, saying that other states don’t have Kentucky’s alternative school program.
“I’ve told you that many times, but you keep bringing up your stale statistics that don’t include the facts of this bill,” Greer said.
House members defeated what Greer called a hostile amendment from Republicans to put the decision of when to raise the dropout age in the hands of individual school councils, rather than school districts.