Cost of raising dropout age worries some

By Rick SobeyMilford Daily News

BOSTON – Area legislators and school officials support the idea of raising the minimum school dropout age from 16 to 18, but there are concerns with how the plan would be funded and implemented.

On Thursday, 44 days after President Barack Obama suggested states should raise the dropout age to 18, the Joint Education Committee approved a bill that would raise the state’s minimum high school dropout age to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2014.

The bill would place graduation coaches in schools with high dropout rates, and require alternative education for expelled students. The coaches would identify the students who are at risk, monitor their attendance rates and provide advice and services, such as peer tutoring. The coaches would also reach out to students who have already dropped out.

The proposal is similar to a Milford High School program that helps students who are at risk of dropping out by tracking motivated students having trouble with their studies and capable students who are frequently absent.

“We give counseling support to them, and there’s a vocational component to the program,” said Peter Bruce, the school’s guidance department director. “It’s a non-traditional way to move forward the students who need the push.”

State Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, chairwoman of the Joint Education Committee, said the bill is going to the Ways and Means Committee to determine how much it might cost the state before the House and Senate vote on it.

Local legislators say keeping students in school is important, but some worry about the bill’s details. Rep. George Peterson, R-Grafton, said he is concerned about where the money will come from to pay for graduation coaches and alternative education.

“The legislation’s premise is good because without high school you’re not going to go anywhere,” Peterson said. “But we shouldn’t take money from other areas that need it already.”

Peterson said urban areas already get a significant amount of Chapter 70 school aid money. He also said he’s against taking any of those funds from the suburban areas that do not have dropout problems.

“The urban areas should redesign how they spend their money,” Peterson said. “They need to do a better job with what they have already.”

The cost is also being questioned by superintendents and school committee officials.

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said that while the bill addresses some of those concerns of how school districts would deal with increased enrollment due to a higher dropout age, he said more details are needed.

“There needs to be some support and funding that comes with this,” Scott said. “Resources are needed to make this effective.”

But Peisch said such concerns are unfounded. “It is not the committee’s intent to reallocate funds,” she said. “If we’re unable to find funding, then this bill would not be passed.”

Peisch also said school districts won’t be responsible for paying their own costs mandated by the bill.

“If this legislation is to be effective, we need to provide resources, which is a huge challenge with the economy not completely rebounded,” Peisch said. “Raising the dropout age without providing support and resources doesn’t address the problem. Hopefully we find enough in the budget.”

Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, sees trouble in enforcing this legislation.

“The issue is how do we make sure that the struggling students stay in school,” Fernandes said. “I like the idea of raising the age to 18, but enforcing the mandate is difficult.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2008-2009, Massachusetts’ high school dropout rate was 2.9 percent — the nation’s rate was 4.1 percent.

About 8,000 Massachusetts students drop out each year, and dropouts make up 70 percent of the state’s prison population. More than half of dropouts depend on Medicare or Medicaid for health insurance.

The dropout age has been raised to 18 in 21 states, including Rhode Island.

Bruce said raising the dropout age would be an important step forward.

“When a student is 16, their maturity level is nowhere close to their maturity level at 18,” Bruce said. “When the student is 18, they may look at the world in a totally different way and have an improved future. It’s important to keep the students in school longer because there will be lifelong consequences by dropping out.”

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