By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
It took five long years and a compromise offered by Republican Sen. David Givens, but Gov. Steve Beshear, first lady Jane Beshear and Democratic Rep. Jeff Greer Monday finally saw their dream of raising the state’s high school dropout age come true.
Beshear signed Senate Bill 97, which will allow individual school districts to raise the dropout age to 18 on a voluntary basis. Once 55 percent of the districts have done so, it would become mandatory for all other districts to follow suit within four years.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Jane Beshear, who has crusaded for the change. She said the increase from 16 years old is “setting the expectation for every child, every parent, every educator and every civic leader,” showing that “we do believe education is the answer to so many of Kentucky’s problems,” she said.
The governor called the measure “one of my highest legislative priorities” and said it sends “a clear message to our youth that education does matter.” He said the links between education and higher income, economic stability, better health and longevity are “irrefutable.”
Greer has sponsored a measure to increase the dropout age to 18 (from 16) in each of the past five General Assembly sessions and it passed the Democratic-controlled House each time but ran into resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate.
There skeptics said many school districts aren’t equipped to offer alternative education to students facing academic difficulty or failure, some of whom often display accompanying behavior problems.
But Jane Beshear said Kentucky now “has the tools” to offer alternative programs in nearly every district and the gradual implementation will allow districts to prepare for the costs.
Greer thanked Givens and Senate Education Chairman Mike Wilson for working with him, the Beshears and House Education Chairman Carl Rollins to craft a compromise solution to the previous impasse.
“I’m so proud Kentucky no longer is going to say ‘go ahead and quit’ (to potential dropouts),” Greer said. Most students, he continued, are “too young to make that decision and too often do not have the guidance at home to make that decision.”
Like the other speakers, Givens praised the “passion and persistence” of the First Lady and said the bill is a step forward for the state, but he added there remains work to do.
He said even without the bill, Kentucky has made impressive gains in the high school graduation rate. But those still dropping out represent stiffer challenges and the state must ensure they receive a diploma by the time they reach 18.
On another issue, Beshear said he’s been meeting with both Democrats and Republicans trying to resolve an impasse on pension reform.
The Senate passed a reform package which would move new employees into a hybrid, cash-balance plan while retaining current defined benefits for existing workers and retirees. It also recommends making full payment each year into the retirement system but offers no source of income to do that.
The Democratic House rewrote the Senate bill to keep new hires in a defined benefit plan and then passed a companion bill which uses growth revenues from expanded lottery games and instant racing to pay for the annual contribution.
Beshear declined to say if either side had given any ground on the last point and noted there are differences in the pension packages as well. But he said he is encouraged by the “good faith” of all parties and they’ve set up a schedule to continue meeting.
He said he still is hopeful the two sides can reach agreement before the 2013 General Assembly is scheduled to end March 26.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.