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A legislative committee is poised to advance legislation that will raise the state’s minimum high school dropout age to 18 in time for the 2014-2015 school year, an effort that backers say will help chip away at the 8,000 students per year who quit school and disproportionately wind up in prison or dependent upon taxpayer-funded programs.
The bill, scheduled to be released by the Committee on Education on Thursday, would raise the dropout age from 16 to 17 in 2013 and from 17 to 18 in 2014. It would also place “graduation coaches” in schools with high dropout rates.
The bill, a redrafted version of a proposal filed in January 2011, will be voted on by the 17-member committee a month after President Obama challenged states to raise their dropout ages to 18 during his State of the Union address. The committee’s co-chairs, Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley) and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaica Plain), intend to ask their colleagues to support the bill, which would likely head to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the panel that vets bills with potential costs.
Backers of the proposal, including Gov. Deval Patrick, have emphasized that any move to increase the dropout age must be accompanied by supports for those students who would otherwise have dropped out.
“We believe in raising the age,” said Paul Reville, secretary of education, in a phone interview. “But you’ve got to have support programs and they’ve got to be paid for.”
Reville, who said he has yet to see the version of the bill being released by the committee, called graduation coaches “a good idea” but said the funding for those positions shouldn’t come from the state’s education budget without an additional appropriation.
“My number one concern, as it has been in the past, is how do those get paid for,” he said. “What we’re looking for is some kind of an appropriation to go with that.”
Reville added that he wants to review the bill before determining whether the administration will support it or seek changes.
Superintendents and school committee officials have also worried that raising the dropout age would foist new costs onto local school districts without additional support from the state.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the revised bill “somewhat” alleviates concerns about how school districts would deal with increased enrollment expected to result from a higher minimum dropout age. But he said stakeholders are just beginning to examine what the costs will be to implement it.
“There needs to be some support and funding that comes with this,” Scott said in a phone interview. “Resources are needed to make this effective.”
Scott added that some superintendents have considered the introduction of “regional centers” to help school districts pool resources to support students at risk of dropping out, akin to the educational collaboratives that help school districts streamline special education programs.
“What we’re hoping to do is take the benefits of this legislation but to really sort of advance it a bit,” he said. “How do we create the right structures to be able to deliver this?”
Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), who first filed legislation to raise the minimum dropout age to 18 in 2003, said cost shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to making that change.
“I think it’s premature to look at a fiscal component at this point. I think we need to first set in place and change the goal that changes school attendance to age 18,” he said. “I believe school districts plan, or at least they should plan, that every kid that enrolls will graduate. We should not be planning that we’re not going to have as many students in the system, in the school district, as there were first enrolled.”
Cabral also noted that the state provides education aid to cities and towns based on how many students are enrolled in their local districts.
“It’s such an important policy matter. If we are serious about economic development, about job creation — and I believe we are — and have the workforce with the skills for the jobs of today and tomorrow, it is imperative that we change the policy,” he said.
Under the bill, “students at risk of dropping out of school” would be defined as those on the verge of dropping out. The proposal would match those students from seventh to 12th grade with coaches who “will monitor the students’ attendance and provide advice and intervention services, or connection to intervention services, such as, but not limited to, peer tutoring, credit recovery, and academic remediation.” The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would be responsible for providing funding for coaches in certain districts with an annual dropout rate of at least 10 percent.
After the committee releases the bill, supporters plan to hold a press conference convened by Chang-Diaz’s office. Expected attendees include Mayor Lisa Wong of Fitchburg; Kathy Hamilton of the Youth Transitions Task Force; Michael McDonald of the TRUST Project; Luzmar Centeno of the Multicultural Dropout Outreach Collaborative; and Araba Adoboe, a “young adult” from Amherst.
The bill comes three years after the Rennie Center released a report indicating that about 70 percent of the Massachusetts prison population is made up of high school dropouts and that more than half of dropouts depend on Medicare or Medicaid for their health insurance.
“I think it is indisputable the costs to both individuals and society is very high. Our hope is, with additional supports, more students will graduate from high school,” Peisch said.
The Education Committee is scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. Thursday in Room B-1.
This program aired on March 7, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.
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