State senator wants to raise school dropout age

Published 6:56 pm Tuesday, February 10, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Republican state Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur proposed legislation Tuesday to make it harder to drop out of school, including raising the dropout age from 16 to 17.

“It seems we allow teenagers to doom themselves to likely futures of poverty and struggle when we should do everything we can to convince them otherwise,” Orr said at a media briefing.

The Southern Education Foundation put Alabama’s graduation rate in 2007 at 59 percent, which is in the bottom 10 states.

State Superintendent of Education Joe Morton said Tuesday he hadn’t seen Orr’s bill, but supports the concepts outlined by the senator, including raising the dropout age.

Orr, a former Peace Corps teacher in Nepal, said 24 states use 16 as the dropout age, while the remainder use 17 or 18.

In addition to increasing the dropout age, Orr’s bill would:

—require a student wishing to drop out to bring a parent or guardian to attend an exit interview with a school administrator, who would provide information about the economic challenges facing dropouts and opportunities for job training. The student and the parent or guardian would have to sign that they understood the consequences.

—implement intensive programs to reduce the dropout rates in schools with more than 30 percent of their students not completing school.

Orr said the state Department of Education is working hard to increase the graduation rate, including putting graduation coaches in 25 schools with high dropout rates. He said more is needed, but it will be hard to hire more when the recession is forcing cuts in school spending.

Morton predicted the graduation rate in Alabama’s 350 high schools will increase significantly in a few years when elementary school students who have been through the Alabama Reading Initiative in elementary school reach high school. Morton said good reading skills in the early grades are critical to success in higher grades, and the initiative is accomplishing that.