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Editorial: Raising dropout age sends right message, can salvage teens' futures

Jan. 06, 2013 @ 10:00 PM

A half century ago, allowing students to drop out of school at age 16 probably made sense.

The demand for unskilled workers was high, and young men and women who had lost interest in school often found jobs in factories, agriculture, business or the armed forces and built successful careers and happy lives.

But a lot has changed since then.

Today's high school dropouts face a world with limited job prospects and even more limited earning power. For workers who lack a high school diploma, unemployment is very high and median earnings are about $16,000 a year, according to the Census.

That bleak future is not only a challenge for those young people, but also for states such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, which spend billions each year to provide assistance and health care to low-income families.

So, it's not surprising that there has been a slow but steady move to raise the age for compulsory school attendance.

Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia require attendance until 18, including Ohio. Eleven others, including West Virginia, require attendance until age 17.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear is ready to try once again to add the Bluegrass State to that list.

"It sends a great message and a very essential message to our parents, our students and our school systems that kids need to finish high school to have any kind of opportunity to land a good job and to be able to support a family in the future," he told The Associated Press last week.

Beshear's plan would raise the age over a period of years first to 17 and then to 18.

Of course, just raising the attendance age will not make disengaged teens go to school. As West Virginia found with its focus on truancy last year, skipping school can become a way of life in some households. But research shows a higher standard does help.

"What we have found is that most of these children are not dropping out because they can't do the work," Beshear told the AP. "They don't see the value of finishing their high school education. And it behooves us to get those children into a career pathway that interests them and gets them excited about finishing school."

Some opponents fear classrooms will be disrupted by students who don't want to be in school, and that is a reasonable concern. But Beshear feels schools have the tools to help these students succeed.

Raising the age to 18 is the right thing to do.

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