By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
Gov. Steve Beshear on Monday defended the decision to offer school districts $10,000 to implement a dropout age of 18, a decision criticized by House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown.
Beshear has backed a proposal for the last three General Assembly sessions to raise the age at which a student can drop out of school from 16 to 18, but it was consistently stymied in the Republican-controlled Senate, whose members said it was an unfunded mandate on districts who couldn’t afford effective alternative education programs.
Republican critics said without such programs, older students who didn’t wish to be in school would be disruptive to other students.
But this year, the two sides worked out a compromise. Districts can voluntarily raise the age and when 55 percent — about 95 of the state’s 174 districts — had done so, the remaining districts would have to comply within three years.
But shortly after the session ended, Education Commissioner Terry Holliday announced the $10,000 incentive grants. Hoover immediately objected in a letter to Beshear, asking why any excess money hadn’t been used to purchase textbooks for students, a program which has received zero funding in recent budgets.
But Beshear said the money from which the grants would be awarded is specifically appropriated for dropout prevention.
“The money comes from dropout prevention monies that have been appropriated to the department, so it’s exactly what it should be spent on, and I think it’s money well spent,” Beshear said.
Holliday earlier said there is enough money, $570,000, to fund such grants for 57 districts, not enough to meet the 55 percent threshold to make the new standard mandatory for all districts.
Asked if the money might not be better used to purchase textbooks as Hoover suggested in his letter, the governor said the money was appropriated “specifically for drop-out money, so the money couldn’t be used for textbooks anyway.”
Later Monday, Hoover posted on his Twitter account a statement saying the use of the money for the grants violates Kentucky Revised Statute 158.146 (4). (Attempts to reach Hoover for comment were unsuccessful as of press time.)
Paragraph 4 of KRS 158.146 says award grants may be made to districts to combat dropout rates from funds appropriated for that purpose by the legislature and according to Kentucky Board of Education regulations. But it says 75 percent of the money “shall be directed to services for at-risk elementary and middle school students.”
(Many dropout prevention experts say early intervention with at-risk students before they reach high school is the most effective way to combat high school drop-outs.)
The same paragraph of the statute says 25 percent of the available funds, however, “shall be directed” to high school drop-out prevention services. The final sentence in the paragraph says: “Priority for grants shall be awarded to districts that average, over a three (3) year period, an annual dropout rate exceeding five percent (5%).”
That might be construed to mean districts with lower drop-out rates than 5 percent wouldn’t be eligible for the awards until the districts with higher rates had been given grants.
Questions sent to the Department of Education and Beshear’s press office by email hadn’t been answered as of press time.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/