STANFORD — Lincoln County is aiming to earn a $10,000 bonus for becoming one of the first school districts in the state to require school attendance by 17- and 18-year-olds.
The Lincoln County Board of Education unanimously voted April 11 to pass the first reading of a revised attendance policy that would alter the district drop-out age beginning in August 2015.
If the revised policy passes a second reading, it would require all Lincoln County "students between the ages of six and 18" to "enroll and be in regular attendance" at school.
The current policy's compulsory attendance cutoff at 16 years old would remain in place for the next two school years.
The Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation this year allowing districts to up their drop-out age to 18. If 55 percent of the state's districts — a total of 95 districts — adopt an 18-year-old dropout age, the remaining districts will be required to do so as well within four years.
The Kentucky Board of Education approved a resolution April 10 encouraging local districts to adopt the new, higher drop-out age as quickly as possible.
"In the past, students were permitted by state law to drop out of school at the age of 16, thus severely diminishing their opportunities for success in life," the resolution reads. "…the Kentucky Board of Education urges local boards of education to be courageous early adopters of a policy to raise the compulsory school attendance age to 18, effective in the 2015-16 school year, in order to send a strong message that completing high school is essential to ensuring that every student graduates college- and career-ready."
Coinciding with the resolution, KDE Commissioner Terry Holliday announced a plan to award $10,000 to each of the first 57 school districts in the state to adopt the new, higher drop-out age.
Lincoln County Superintendent Karen Hatter said limits in the new state law prevent districts from implementing a higher dropout age policy before July 1, so Lincoln County's Board of Education will have to wait until at least them to pass the second reading.
Hatter said the board may need to call a special meeting in early July in order to pass the policy before all 57 $10,000 rewards are claimed by other districts.
Both Hatter and Board Chairman Jim Kelley said Fort Logan High School — an alternative high school that helps struggling students graduate — will play an important role in educating students who might have previously dropped out at 16.
Kelley said while the move to up Lincoln’s dropout age is appropriate now, he doesn’t believe it is overdue.
“If this had been a no-brainer, looks like we would have done it a long time ago,” he said.
Kelley said raising the dropout age does create potential issues that have to be dealt with. One of the most "disruptive" problems a classroom can face is "somebody who doesn't want to be there," he explained.
Without Fort Logan available as an alternative, students who would have rather dropped out at 16 might "bring peers down with them" at the normal high school, he said.
"I probably would not be as in favor of this if we did not have Fort Logan," Kelley said. "With Fort Logan in place, I'm 100-percent behind it and I think we've got all the tools in place to handle it."
Hatter said the district will receive more federal and state funding if its enrollment goes up after raising the dropout age. But the total cost of educating the additional students will outweigh that added income, making the policy change a probable net expense in the long-run.
“It won’t overcome the additional cost,” she said of the potential increase in federal and state funding.
Kelley said because the school district exists for the purpose of educating students, the additional cost of educating more students is "not a concern."
"Our goal should be students first and I think that's important to the county and to all of us that we go through whatever avenues we have to," he said. "If it costs a few extra dollars, we'll have to find them."
Hatter said raising the dropout age is essentially just a way to protect students' futures.
"If they're mandated to stay in school, that regulation just helps protect them from making a decision they would later regret," she said. "The regulation is just like our speed limit. It's put in place to protect us from ourselves."
The plan to reward early adopters has drawn criticism from state House Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, who wrote a letter to Gov. Steve Beshear criticizing the "disturbing" use of public funds to "advance this agenda while tens of thousands of children in Kentucky are desperately in need of textbooks."
But Beshear said at a news conference April 15 that the bonus for early adopters is "money well spent" and pointed out the money for the program doesn't come from a funding source that could be used for textbooks.
Hatter said she looks forward to the new policy changing attitudes about school attendance.
"I'm excited that our board is supportive and wants to do it for our students," she said. "Pretty soon it will be the norm that you stay in school until you're 18."