Kentucky's New Dropout Law Could Face Legal Challenges

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Kentucky's new law that raises the school dropout age from 16 to 18 could be in for both a legal challenge and revision from the 2016 General Assembly.

The idea behind the law, which went into effect July 1, is to increase the percentage of high school graduates and better prepare students for careers or college.

But some dropouts who are close to earning a GED, or general equivalency diploma, would be required to go back to high school and could not take the GED exam until after they turn 18. They would be considered truant if they do not return to school.

Some lawmakers are getting complaints about that unintended consequence.

"We may have to address this in the 2016 session," said state Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville.

There is no doubt that getting a high school diploma will result in students becoming better citizens, said Buford. But he said the law has caused problems for some students and parents.

One of the issues, said Buford, is "how do we provide care for young women with children?"

The story of one young mother, Alexis Barnett, 17, of Lexington, was featured in Sunday's Herald-Leader.

"We need to provide day care if we force them to attend. We did not address this in the bill," Buford said.

Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, who is House Education Committee chairman, said he had heard similar concerns and that he would talk to General Assembly leaders and the bill's sponsors to see if anything can be done to deal with unintended consequences.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, said he had not received complaints. "Certainly we are open to taking a look at addressing issues that may exist," he said. "However, the phased-in approach that we took with the original legislation should have provided ample time for both school districts and students to be aware that this is happening."

There are advocates for children who are considering litigation regarding the law, said Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, director of litigation for the Children's Law Center.

Kentucky puts children in juvenile detention centers for offenses such as truancy. They are housed with those faced with prosecution in adult court on serious felony crimes, she said.

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"The school district is not necessarily providing any additional support for these kids. That is our concern," said DiLoreto.

Any change in the law next year is not going to come in time for dropouts required to attend school this fall, she said.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said he doesn't think there was ever an intent to punish teens who had dropped out before the law was passed, but who have not yet turned 18.

"The K-12 community and state leaders do have a real opportunity — and obligation — to become imaginative in working with young people who have dropped out before the law or those now in the throes of making a bad dropping-out decision," he said.

The state could focus on alternative and technology/trade programs "to draw in — rather than suppress — vulnerable kids," he said. "In a lot of ways, this issue is a pivot point. Are we only going to comply with the law? In which case, young people may pay unintended prices. Or is it about a commitment to the spirit of the law, in which case innovative options will flourish, giving vulnerable youth a track to a productive future."

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