ATLANTA - The Georgia Senate voted Thursday to raise the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 17, despite critics' warnings that it would disrupt classroom discipline and impose a financial burden on districts.
Precise dropout figures are elusive, but the state auditor estimates Georgia has 30,000 to 40,000 dropouts a year.
Should all those students stay in school until they turn 17, it would cost the state between $86 million and $115 million, according to a financial analysis that accompanied the legislation.
Though the bill passed 32-22, Republicans used that financial impact to argue against it for an hour.
"This is a classic unfunded mandate," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Clay, R-Marietta. He said dropouts are not quitting because state law allows them but rather because public schools are not relevant to some students.
"The problems run much deeper," Mr. Clay said.
Bill sponsor Sen. Mark Taylor, D-Albany, said Georgia's high dropout rate, which he estimated at 40 percent, hurts the state economy.
"If you are interested in your community growing, if you are interested in the state of Georgia growing, you will deal with the dropout rate," said Mr. Taylor, whose southwest Georgia district is one of the poorest in the state.
When prospective employers see Georgia's dropout rate, "they just move on down the road," he said.
The bill would not require schools to take back students who were expelled. It would allow problem students to attend alternative schools or enroll in General Equivalency Degree programs rather than rejoin their peers or classes with much younger students.
Allowing unruly students to take GED courses won the support of state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, who opposed Mr. Taylor's initial draft of the legislation.
"I'd say 95 percent of (dropouts) have had some form of disciplinary problem and if we force them back into the system I can see where it would cause trouble for the other 29 children in the classroom and for the teacher," Mr. Schrenko said.
Mr. Taylor said the 22 senators who voted against the bill are trying to undermine public education.
"The opposition to this bill is an indication on the part of some that they would be pleased by the failure of our system," Mr. Taylor said. "They are closing their minds to the long term cost to society."
Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, voted against the mandatory attendance hike, but insisted opponents had no hidden agenda to damage schools.
"My two kids go to public schools," said Mr. Johnson. "The people who voted against it are more concerned with the kids who are in school, than the kids out of school."
Mr. Taylor, he joked, "has been sniffing glue."