BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) — Taylor Blair had a baby girl at age 15. On her 16th birthday, she called her high school and said she wasn't coming back.
"I'd only been to school maybe two weeks out of a semester," Blair said. "I didn't want to be the dumb kid in class and not know anything."
Kentucky education experts say 6,000 to 7,000 students a year drop out of high school in the state, where it's been legal since 1920 to do so at age 16 with parental permission.
First lady Jane Beshear has for several years been pushing lawmakers to raise the age to 18, as it is in 15 other states. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said during his State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday that a bill to gradually raise the dropout age will be a priority during the 2013 legislative session.
"We must keep our teenagers in school," he said.
Terry Holliday, Kentucky's education commissioner, said in a letter of support to Gov. Beshear that the legislation to raise the dropout age is "a key component of a comprehensive approach to improving the economy of Kentucky and the future of the children in this state."
Similar bills failed in 2011 and 2012 under criticism that they amounted to an unfunded mandate that would cost already strapped school districts millions of dollars to educate the extra students.
There are about 175 alternative education sites across Kentucky, according to the state Department of Education. When alternative schools are available, students at risk of dropping out often attend one.
Such schools include the 100-student Lighthouse Academy in Bowling Green, where it took a year for Blair, now 17, to get on track for an on-time graduation in December. For at-risk teens, changing the dropout age won't make a difference, she said — it's having a place like Lighthouse to nurture students.
"If they're going to have that mindset then they're going to fail until they drop out," Blair said. "If you make it from 16 to 18, they're just going to sit in school and not worry about anything and just wait until they're 18 to drop out. So really it's not going to make any difference at all."
Recent research by the Brookings Institution showed that the 15 states that have raised the dropout age to 18 have not seen graduation rates improve any more than the states with ages at 16 or 17.
"With or without demographic controls, states that require students to attend school until they are 18 years of age have graduation rates that are 1 to 2 percentage points lower than states that only require attendance until age 16 or 17," wrote research authors Grover J. Whitehurst and Sarah Whitfield. "This difference is in the wrong direction for those who advocate that every state should require that students stay in school until they are 18."
Kentucky's high school graduation rate was 77.8 percent as of 2011, according to the state Department of Education. The National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, said the average high school graduation rate nationwide was 78.2 percent, using figures from 2009-2010.
Matthew Bastin, principal of Lighthouse, said that in his experience, it is rare for 16-year-olds to drop out because parents generally won't give permission.
"All my dropouts are usually already over 18 or they are 18, and some of them it's the day after they turn 18 because their parent wouldn't" give permission, he said.
Stu Silberman, executive director of the nonprofit Prichard Committee for Educational Excellence, said Kentucky's graduation legislation must be passed because it "sets the mindset that we're serious about this and we expect you to stay in school," Silberman said.
"I think we have to stop looking at this as an expenditure and start looking at is an investment," he said. "Either we invest now or we're going to pay later," he added, referring to state estimates that show, for instance, that dropouts are eight times more likely to go to jail or prison than high school graduates.
He said one key to keeping kids in school is helping them find their niche, as Bastin does with Lighthouse students. Some, for example, are allowed to attend classes in the morning and a vocational school in the afternoon.
"You've got to break it down to every kid," Bastin said. "There's no set, oh this program, this program works for this kid, all these kids. It's really individual."