ATLANTA -- State education officials swear Georgia's school dropout problem is improving, but Gov. Roy Barnes and members of his reform commission may wind up recommending the General Assembly raise the mandatory attendance age anyway next year from 16 to 18.
The mandatory school attendance age is 16 in Georgia and many states, despite the fact that most students don't graduate until they are 17 or 18.
"It seems to be an anomaly in this (dropout) debate," said Al Pearson, an Atlanta lawyer who serves on the governor's education reform commission.
"I personally favor going to 18," Mr. Barnes told the commission last week.
Georgia's school dropout rate has been reported to be 30-40 percent the past few years.
However, that actually is the percentage of children who start 9th grade and don't graduate in four years.
State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko said that is a "ridiculous" and misleading way to figure out how many children are dropping out of the system.
Some, she said, may be graduating in three years, others 5 years. Still others may simply be leaving one school and enrolling in another elsewhere.
The true annual dropout rate, she argued, was closer to 6.5 percent during the 1997-98 school year, down from 7.3 percent the prior year.
In the past, members of the state Senate, including now-Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, have tried to pass legislation raising the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18, without success.
The General Assembly did approve a law to keep teens that drop out from being able to drive. That has led to thousands of license suspensions. However, it hasn't been in effect long enough to gauge the impact on the dropout rate.
Educators and researchers say cutting the dropout rate is important for many reasons. Dropouts have much higher unemployment rates and much lower average incomes than high school graduates. An estimated 82 percent of people in U.S. prisons are school dropouts.
Some business and farm interests have opposed the idea of raising the compulsory school attendance age in the past for fear of losing workers.
Georgia Board of Education Chairman Otis Brumby said there might be some initial squawking from businesses about the idea.
But he added, "I think the business community could adjust to it."
Still, educators also have been wary of General Assembly proposals to keep often unmotivated, overage children in school, and they say there hasn't been enough room in the past in alternative facilities to handle all the potential dropouts.
"If they don't want to be there at 16 and you force them to stay there at 18, have you really done them a favor, have you done the teacher a favor?" Mrs. Schrenko asked.