By Beth Musgrave
FRANKFORT — Fayette County Schools Superintendent Tom Shelton said Monday he will push board members to increase the district’s dropout age from 16 to 18 in coming weeks.
Shelton’s comments came after Gov. Steve Beshear signed Senate Bill 97, which allows school districts to voluntarily raise the dropout age. Once 55 percent of Kentucky’s 174 school districts raise the age, the remaining school districts will have four years to implement the change.
Shelton said in a written statement that he will ask the school board to raise the dropout age as soon as possible. The board is scheduled to meet March 25.
“Along with raising the dropout age to 18, we have to provide the right opportunities for kids and support their needs,” Shelton said. “We can’t take a student who wants to drop out of school at the age of 16 and just tell them they have to stay two more years. We have to do something differently with those next two years to guarantee that they graduate from high school.”
Taylor County schools have already voted to increase the dropout age and the Jefferson County school board may also vote to increase the dropout age as early as its next board meeting on March 25, said a spokesman for the Louisville school system.
Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said more than a dozen schools have contacted the group with questions about upping the dropout age this year.
“We haven’t heard from anyone who doesn’t want to do it,” Hughes said.
Although school boards can vote to increase the dropout age immediately, the change won’t be enforceable under SB 97 until the 2015-2016 school year. Still, school districts are free to adopt the change as a policy for the 2014-2015 school year, said Kevin Brown, general counsel for the Kentucky Department of Education.
Hughes said it’s possible that 55 percent of school boards will have voted to raise the dropout age by the 2015-2016 school year.
First Lady Jane Beshear and Gov. Beshear have pushed to increase the dropout age from 16 to 18 since he took office in 2007. Proposals to make the measure mandatory for all school districts failed during the past four legislative sessions.
Some school districts had balked at raising the dropout age, saying they did not have enough money for alternative education programs to support students who did not want to attend school.
“Those districts that have a lot of dropouts and don’t have those alternative programs, it will cost money,” Hughes said Monday.
The Democrat-led House, which had pushed for a mandatory dropout age increase, and the Republican-led Senate agreed on the compromise dropout bill late in this year’s 30-day legislative session.
Beshear said signing the new law was “one of the most satisfying acts” he has taken as governor.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Jane Beshear said during a conference at the state Capitol.
Backers of the bill predicted Monday that it will improve educational outcomes for Kentucky children and help the state’s bottom line by reducing the number of people dependent on welfare programs.
Multiple studies have shown that high school dropouts earn substantially less, are more likely to be dependent on welfare programs and are more likely to end up in jails and prisons.