In his 27 years as a guidance counselor and teacher for at-risk students in Charleston County schools, Mark Epstein says he saw thousands of students drop out of high school, many of them shortly after their 17th birthday — the cutoff date for compulsory attendance under South Carolina law.
Since he retired from the district in June, Epstein has taken on a new mission: raising the state’s minimum dropout age from 17 to 18.
“Motivation and maturity: At least it gives kids a little bit of a chance to gain those two characteristics that they’re probably lacking,” Epstein said. He added that, in addition to raising the dropout age cutoff statewide, school districts should expand vocational training programs.
In the most recent available data from the U.S. Education Department, taking into account student transfers, South Carolina schools had a graduation rate of about 78 percent in 2012-2013, falling below the national average of 81 percent.
Raising the dropout age would require a change in state law, and Epstein has started speaking with lawmakers about introducing a bill in the Statehouse when the next session begins in January. On Tuesday afternoon, he met with state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, Charleston County School District board member Eric Mack and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford at Sanford’s Mount Pleasant office to discuss the proposal.
Gilliard said he plans to sponsor a bill raising the dropout age to 18 during the next state legislative session in 2016. “If something is not working, you’ve got to think outside of the box and try new things,” Gilliard said.
Gilliard co-sponsored a similar bill in 2012, but it stalled out in the House Committee on Education and Public Works following opposition from then-S.C. Education Superintendent Mick Zais, who said that students should not be forced to attend failing schools and that lawmakers should focus on expanding school-choice initiatives.
Sanford said he would like to see a focus on fixing the problems that lead students to drop out in the first place.
“Dropping out at 17 is a symptom,” Sanford said. “What do we do about addressing the causes of that symptom?”
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