ATLANTA, Ga. — Multiple Georgia education officials voiced their support for legislation that would raise the age when teenagers can quit school to 17, but a committee is still studying the impact.
The Senate Study Committee on Age of Mandatory Education, in its first meeting on Thursday, asked the Georgia Department of Education for more data on what measures would effectively reduce the state’s high school dropout rate, and how much raising the dropout age would cost.
Committee Chairman Chuck Payne, a Republican senator from Dalton, said the group plans to hold meetings around the state with school board members in “small, medium and large sized” districts to gather feedback on potentially changing the law on compulsory attendance from 16 to 17.
Georgia Department of Education External Affairs Manager Kerry Pritchard said the department supports raising the mandatory age but would rather see the Legislature increase its funding for wrap-around services for all students.
“We do have amazing programs throughout the state,” Pritchard said. “It’s not that they’re dropping out because they’re in trouble. They’re dropping out because they have to get a job to support their families.”
The department defines wrap-around services as a “planning process used to build constructive relationships and support networks among students and youth with emotional or behavioral disabilities and families.”
The committee asked Pritchard to find out what exactly those services would include and how much they would cost the state, as she did not have that information during the meeting.
Upon receiving that information from the department, the committee intends on having the updated bill ready for the 2022 legislative session.
Pritchard also said she worried about the impact of having additional students given a statewide teacher shortage and the large caseload on Georgia’s school counselors, who average 408 students each. In 2015, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission found that 44% of public school teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
Joe Fleming, chief lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Educators, expressed the association’s full support for the bill.
“We don’t view it as an either-or proposition between additional services needed by students in schools versus expanding the age to 17. Sixteen is way too young to drop out,” he said.
Thirty-five states have a mandatory age of education of at least 17, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Currently, Georgia shares the same policy with Florida and North Carolina. In Alabama and South Carolina, the age is already 17 years, and 18 in Tennessee.
Fleming cited the bill as a way to help combat the substantially high incarceration rate for high school dropouts.
“This is an investment that, in the long term, will save millions and millions of dollars in Georgia,” he said. “The small amount that we spend now to continue having kids in class until at least 17 is an expenditure well worth it.”
Grace Kim, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Board Association, said school boards support the bill and her group wanted the age raised even higher, to 18.
“Students do not understand the consequences of going through life without the minimum of a high school education will have on them,” she said.
The committee is investigating a proposal from Sen. Lester Jackson, a Democrat from Savannah. Jackson introduced a bill last January but it stalled in committee. However, it can still pass during the 2022 session.
“Our job as legislators is to prepare young people to be productive citizens,” Jackson said in an interview. “I think it’s horrible that we allow young men and young women to be able to drop out of school at the age of 16, unskilled and unprepared to be useful citizens.”
Jackson’s bill, which he said has bipartisan support, also would raise the age of eligibility for adult literacy services for dropouts to 17.