[image-1]As state lawmakers and members of the press packed into the living room of Mark Epstein’s Mt. Pleasant home on Wednesday, the retired Charleston County School District guidance counselor took one step closer to reaching his goal of keeping kids in school.

Backed by bipartisan support in the state capitol, as well as members of the Charleston County school board, Epstein’s efforts have led to a bill that will raise the legal dropout age from 17 to 18 and keep students from falling through the cracks.

“There is a hole in our system. The only part of this that makes me angry is this hole should have been closed up a long time ago,” Epstein said. “People have known it has existed, and I did not think I was the one who would be speaking out on it because I thought for sure someone long before I retired would have done this. I owed it to a lot of kids to speak up for them when I retired. I almost felt they were counting on me.”

With the direct support of state reps. Wendell Gilliard, Jenny Horne, David Mack, Jerry Govan, Bill Clyburn, and Lonnie Hosey, the bill looks to succeed where an attempt to pass similar legislation failed in 2012.

“I think for those of us who have been in the General Assembly, the reason why the [previous] bill may have failed is because we didn’t bring enough publicity to the issue, and I think that’s what Mr. Epstein has done through his experience as an educator is pointed out to us who are non-educators what impact this has on our economy and on our career-readiness and our drop-out rate,” Horne said. “Certainly, I am very optimistic that this bill will receive a subcommittee hearing and will probably get out and get voted on in the House and be sent over to the Senate.”

Currently, parents with children who drop out before the age of 17 can be fined $50 for each school day their child is not in class. In some cases, the parents can even face up to 30 days in jail, but the real burden of dropping out falls on the students who risk entering the full-time workforce before they’re ready. Along with Jim Young, manager of human resources at the S.C. Ports Authority, Epstein pointed out that students who leave school at the age of 17 are ineligible to enroll in non-degree programs at state technical community colleges until they turn 18. This leaves 17-year-olds without a high school degree or GED in limbo, unable to receive the training necessary to become viable in the job market. Economics researchers Philip Oreopoulos and Derek Messacar at the University of Toronto have found that among recent dropouts in the United States, 16 percent are unemployed and 32 percent live below the poverty line, approximately double the national average.

“Our students have to be prepared, and the only way that is going to happen is for them to educate themselves. Our teachers can’t do it all. [Education] incorporates the parents, those of us in business and industry, and the students really willing to work to get to where they need to be,” said Young. “Maybe this bill will make a difference, so that our kids will understand that there are opportunities out there beyond their imagination.”

According to recent statistics from the U.S. Education Department, graduation rates in South Carolina schools lag behind the national average, with approximately 78 percent of students receiving a diploma in 2012-2013. While the change in the legal dropout age would affect students throughout South Carolina, Charleston County School Board member Rev. Dr. Eric Mack is most excited about the positive impact he believes the bill would have on local schools working to ensure that students have the maturity and skills needed to thrive.

“It will move the bar in the Charleston County School District as far as making sure our kids receive a quality education,” he said. “It gives us another year to be able to work with our students to make productive citizens, to make college-ready students when they do reach that age, and hopefully it will improve our graduation rate by moving that age level from 17 to 18.”