Education Commissioner Terry Holliday

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday

Twenty-six million dollars is a big number.

That is the amount some are estimating it will cost Kentucky taxpayers to raise the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18.

I and the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) have counted such a change as a top priority in past legislative sessions. The 2012 session is no exception.

We believe the change is in line with reform efforts we have been undertaking as part of Senate Bill 1 (SB1) – a piece of legislation passed in 2009 with the overwhelming support of the House and Senate.

That bill has numerous components and directives, but at the end of the day it calls on us to do one thing for all Kentucky students: Prepare them for college or the workplace. In turn, those prepared students will succeed and benefit our commonwealth.

Given that mandate, how can we then deem it acceptable for a 16-year-old to drop out of high school without the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed? How can we turn our backs on the students that likely need us the most? These students may be some of the hardest to reach, but they also are some of the most vulnerable.

There are those who see dropouts not as a problem, but rather a solution that rids our schools of unmotivated students who can be disruptive and uncooperative. (Dropouts, by the way, also rid schools of SEEK funding they would receive had those students stayed in school.)

But while those students may not be in our schools’ hallways and classrooms, the problems they create for us do not go away. In fact, these students place a larger financial burden on our state than had we kept them in our schools and figured out a way to engage them.

Here are some other big numbers to consider:

  • More than 6,200 students dropped out of Kentucky’s high schools in 2010; the lost lifetime earnings in Kentucky for that class of dropouts alone total more than $4.2 billion.
  • The state could have saved as much as $162 million in health care costs over the lifetimes of each class of dropouts had they earned their diplomas.
  • If Kentucky high schools graduated all their students ready for college, the state could save as much as $52.3 million a year in community college remediation costs and lost earnings.
  • The state’s economy could see a combination of crime-related savings and additional revenue of about $87.4 million each year if the male high school graduation rate increased by 5 percent.

It is statistics like these that have led 31 states, including Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia, to pass laws that keep students in school beyond age 16. In all, 31 states and the District of Columbia, American Samoa and Puerto Rico mandate students to stay in school to age 17 or 18.

I agree that traditional schools are not the answer for all students. But the answer is not to let them leave school. The answer is to find new and innovative ways to help these students learn and to provide our teachers with the tools and support they need to reach these students. 

I realize increasing the age of compulsory school attendance is not the only step; it is the first step in our effort to ensure all our students get the education they need.

We have been working and continue to work on ways to ensure all our students are learning and engaged through innovative early-college programs and expanded use of technology. Other schools are partnering with programs like Project Lead the Way that allow students to get hands-on, real-world experience in fields that interest them, like health care and engineering.

Increasingly we have been collaborating with our postsecondary institutions to find solutions to not only educational problems, but also economic, health and cultural issues that often are barriers to student learning. Our friends in business and the larger community also have been stepping up to assist us in helping our students find their niche and love of learning.  

Similar compulsory school attendance legislation has been debated this state for years. It has passed the House three times. It will be debated and discussed again this year, with both sides raising concerns and making valid arguments.

My hope is that in the midst of discussions on this year’s bill and its potential cost, another big number bears some consideration — 6,200. That is the number of Kentucky children who left school before earning high school diplomas during the 2009-10 school year.

Then maybe the debate won’t only focus on the question, “Can we afford to?”, but rather, “Can we afford not to?”