Last January, President Barack Obama called on every state to increase the age at which a student could drop out of school to 18. There wasn’t a flurry of action after the president’s decree, but last week, Kentucky set itself up to be one of the first states to make the move, increasing its mandatory school age from 16 to 18.
The process was a little convoluted. The bill passed in March included a trigger: If 55 percent of the state’s school districts voluntarily increased their dropout age, then the requirement would automatically apply statewide by the 2017-2018 school year. June 25 was the first day that school boards in Kentucky could adopt the new dropout age and, after a strong public push from Gov. Steve Beshear that included $10,000 planning grants for the first 96 schools to adopt the change, the 55 percent threshold was reached on July 9. As a result, the dropout age will rise to 18 in all of Kentucky over the next five school years.
The districts that volunteered will implement the increase in 2015-2016, becoming the first in the nation to make a change after Obama's speech. Beshear praised the change, as raising the dropout age had been a priority of the governor’s since he came into office in 2007.
“We know that keeping our students in school will not only offer them a better future,” Beshear said in a statement, “but will ensure that Kentucky has a better-trained, better-prepared workforce that will benefit the state for decades to come.”
The administration first called for a bill increasing the dropout age back in 2008, so Beshear’s endorsement wasn’t explicitly linked to Obama’s State of the Union mandate. Kerri Richardson, a Beshear spokeswoman, says the 2013 legislation finally secured passage of the proposal by the GOP-controlled general assembly because it included the trigger provision, whereas previous bills had immediately required the new dropout age to go into effect statewide, which had drawn opposition from Republicans.
“It was a long time coming. There have been a lot of concerns about how it would be implemented,” Richardson says. “We’re ecstatic that it’s going to happen.”
As of now, 22 states and the District of Columbia require school attendance until age 18, 11 require it until age 17 and 17 require it until age 16. Most state laws include exceptions for physical and mental health conditions, as well as parental permission to drop out.
Maryland lawmakers passed a dropout bill last year, implementing the change in two steps: the dropout age increases from 16 to 17 in the 2015-2016 school year and then to 18 in the 2017-2018 school year.
When Obama asked for the increased dropout age, the White House cited research from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that “dropouts compelled to take an additional year of high school earn about 10 to 14 percent more than dropouts without the additional year.”
“We… know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” Obama said on January 24, 2012, in his address to Congress.