The state’s graduation rate has risen to 82%, but that still means nearly 1 out of 5 students fails to earn a diploma. Proposed legislation in the state Senate seeks to raise the grad rate by requiring students remain in school to age 17 rather than 16.

OPINION: Should Georgia force teens to attend school until age 17? 

In the fall of 2015, 151,716 freshmen began public high school in Georgia. Four years later, in the fall of 2018, 117,847 remained. While a few of those missing 33,869 teens likely moved or left for private school, the vast majority dropped out, a problem that continues to dog Georgia.

The state’s graduation rate has risen to 82%, but that still means nearly 1 out of 5 students fails to earn a diploma. Proposed legislation in the state Senate seeks to improve the grad rate by mandating students remain in school until age 17. Georgia is among nine states that permits 16-year-olds to drop out of high school. Thirty-five states set the dropout age at 17 or 18.

The Senate Education and Youth Committee held a spirited debate today on Senate Bill 343. No vote was taken, but the committee chairman promised there'd be more discussion of the wisdom of raising the mandatory attendance age to 17. 

The sponsor, Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, said 16 was assumed to be the age when a teen could leave the classroom and easily find work on farms.

“This is an antiquated law. This was made for kids who, at 16, could go work on the farm. If we allow kids to leave our schools at 16, there are no jobs now on farms for them...They can barely flip burgers,” said Jackson.

State Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah

“I think of myself when I was 16-years-old and what I would have done if I had the choice to go to school or stay home. I may have stayed home if it wasn’t for the fact my mother would kill me,” he said.

While applauding Jackson’s intentions, committee members voiced concerns about whether forcing kids to stay in school another year helped them or their classmates.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” said Sen. Ellis Black, R-Valdosta. “Forcing these kids, I just don’t see it being successful.”

Speaking in strong support of the bill, Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, countered, “That’s exactly what we do with kids. You take them to the trough, and eventually they’re going to drink. Our law is that they are kids until they are 18, so one argument I have is that 17 may not be enough.”

Committee chair P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, said concerns already had been brought to him about the additional costs in classrooms, teachers and resources if students are compelled to remain in high school another year. Jackson estimated the annual cost to schools of pushing the legal dropout age to 17 at about $10 million.

“Whoever came to you with these concerns, I hope they don’t work in education,” Brass told the chairman. “Because if that is their concern, then it means they are concerned about the money and not about the child.”

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, told the committee that schools “lose a child’s heart before they lose their body when they turn 16.” Students often resolve at 14-and a-half to quit school when they reach 16, he said, adding, “When a child makes up their mind that they want to quit school and then they lose a heart for being in education, statistically they are a higher discipline issue factor.”

The founder of a technology company, Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, said formal education is mattering less in technology where innate skills are increasingly more important than degrees. He also questioned wielding the law to coerce teens to continue their schooling.

"As I process this and I think about nine years from now when my daughter is 17-years-old, do I want her in class with a number of students who are forced to be there with a threat of handcuffs and a gun," said Dolezal. "That’s essentially what we’re doing; we are saying to those who otherwise want to be elsewhere, we’re going to force them with truancy officers and otherwise to be sitting in class with students who want to be there. And, hopefully, my daughter’s not the one who doesn’t want to be there, but you never know."

Dolezal cited Virgin Record and Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson who left school in England at age 16 to launch a youth magazine. "You can be a billionaire and be more successful and have a higher net worth probably than all of us in this room combined without a high school diploma."

But Branson is a rarity. Young adults without a college degree are almost four times as likely to be living in poverty than those with one. The unemployment rate for Americans with only a high school diploma is twice the rate for those with a bachelor’s degree. And a high school dropout in America earns, on average, an annual income of $20,241, compared to the nearly $31,000 that a high school grad brings home. 

In an interview with the London School for Business and Finance, Branson cited the value of education: "There is room for really good universities to help people get on their feet who want to become entrepreneurs and they play an important role, in particular, for those people who won't necessarily succeed in becoming entrepreneurs so they have a good university education to fall back on."

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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