ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers are considering raising the state's minimum dropout age from 16 to 17.
But a Wednesday hearing on Senate Bill 343 revealed concerns about how much additional students would cost the state, as well as whether it's worthwhile for the state to try to force uninterested teens to remain in school. The Senate Education and Youth Committee didn't vote on the bill. Chairman P.K. Martin, a Lawrenceville Republican, promised another hearing, but it's unclear if the measure will move forward.
Some Democrats have been seeking for years to raise past 16 the age for students choosing to leave school.
"If we allow young people to leave our schools at 16, there are no jobs for them," said the bill's sponsor, Democrat Lester Jackson of Savannah. He argues the 16-year-old age was set when unskilled jobs such as being a farmhand were widely available.
Jackson sought two years ago to raise the dropout age to 18. Then, estimates showed that raising the dropout age to 18 would cost the state more than $20 million in additional aid to local school districts. Jackson is trying again this year, despite pinched budgets that make new spending unattractive. Legislative staff is seeking a cost estimate for Jackson's plan, but he said Wednesday that he expects it will cost more than $10 million
Georgia is one of 15 states, includes neighboring Florida and North Carolina, that sets the minimum dropout age at 16, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While 10 more set 17 as the age that a student may choose to leave school without graduating, 24 states set it at 18 and Texas sets it at 19.
State Department of Education figures show Georgia recorded about 4,600 people last year left without completing a high school diploma, although not all of them were 16 years old.
Some members of the committee voiced skepticism that requiring students to stay would be helpful in the long term, saying students being in school against their will could cause discipline problems.
"In the majority of cases, you lose a child's heart long before you lose their body," said Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Marietta Republican. "I'm not convinced that a mandated age of 17 is going to solve the problem with having the kids engaged."
Sen. Greg Dolezal, a Cumming Republican, asked for statistical proof that a higher minimum dropout age would lead to more high school graduates.
Supporters, though, argued that keeping kids in school would cut prison and welfare costs in the future and bring in more tax dollars.
"This is a pipeline to the prison system if we don't keep them in school," said Sen. Donzella James, an Atlanta Democrat.