South Carolina could raise the age that a student can dropout of high school, compelling students — through threat of legal action — to stay in school until they are 18.
Under current law, S.C. public school students can drop out when they turn 17, a year before they become legal adults, regardless of what their parents or guardians say.
A bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, would change the dropout age, forcing parents and educators to do whatever they can to keep youth in school until they are adults, supporters say.
“This is not about incarceration of kids. This is about intervention,” Govan told a panel of House lawmakers Tuesday before they voted unanimously to advance his bill.
In South Carolina, about 2.6 percent of high-school students dropped out in the 2012-13 through 2014-15 school years. However, the dropout rate fell to 2.3 percent in 2015-16, according to S.C. Department of Education reports.
Govan and supporters say raising the dropout age will close a one-year gap, when students drop out at 17 but are too young to enter some job-training programs and lose their way.
An attendance supervisor for Orangeburg County schools, Govan said, along with raising the dropout age, the state also must encourage and expand programs to help troubled youth transition into jobs from school, through programs including apprenticeships.
“When we can put the right pieces in place, these kids can go on to be successful,” Govan said. "Any activity we can put in place that can help these children transition and keep them engaged means that that's one less child that's wandering on the streets, one less child being counted against us as a dropout."
Supporters were elated that the bill advanced Tuesday.
“When you have statistics on your side to prove it, then it's time for a change,” said state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, who said the state must do something to prevent students from dropping out.
“We have to do anything, by any means necessary, to change these statistics. That extra year gives us another chance for that light to come on.”
Mark Epstein, a former guidance counselor in Charleston County schools who has made it his mission to raise the dropout age, said, “Future generations just got a voice that they never had before. You can struggle, and you can overcome, and you can still be successful.”
The bill has a long way to go before becoming law, and the clock is ticking.
The bill now heads to the full House Education and Public Works Committee. If it wins lawmakers’ approval there, it will go to the House floor.