Thinking Outside the Box

Neely Young

This month I would like to follow the lead of some of our readers and think outside the box, as we face some of society’s most troublesome issues: prisons, high school dropouts and drugs.

One reader asked if Georgia’s legislature could make kids wait until their 18th birthdays to have the option of dropping out of school.

After all, Georgia has a school dropout rate that exceeds 50 percent, and its SAT scores rank 50th in the nation; and 80 percent of our prison population is made up of high school dropouts. Officials project that the state locked up 44,000 inmates at a cost of $898 million this past year.

A child of 16 who drops out of school is unemployable. Most dropouts have nothing to do and turn to drugs, then crime and end up in our prison system. In prison they are educated by criminals to become even better criminals. When they get out, they commit more crimes and recycle back into our jails.

How did we come to this situation? In most of the South, the idea that a child should drop out of school goes back to when we were primarily an agricultural state, and kids needed to work full time on the farm. Clearly times have changed.

If the dropout age were raised to 18, students would have more time to mature. Many might just become good students and graduate. The prison population would naturally decrease. And the cost for prisons would shift to the much lower cost per student ratio in Georgia’s K-12 education system.

A University of West Georgia study indicates that almost all high school dropouts are in prison or live far below the poverty level. But the same study shows that the net worth of a high school graduate jumps by 242 percent with a high school diploma, and increases by another 242 percent with college graduation.

Senate Bill 413 addresses the dropout issue, but it doesn’t go far enough. It mandates that 16- and 17-year-olds get parental permission before deciding to leave school. Georgia’s dismal 50 percent-plus dropout rate comes from our own culture. Most dropouts’ parents and grandparents do not have high school diplomas.

When 16-year-olds drop out, most buy a car, which gives them the freedom to get into all kinds of trouble. That leads us to the second suggestion that comes from my wife, Kathy. She suggests the legislature raise the age for driver’s licenses to 18, or high school graduation.

This, too, would help students to stay in school until they are more mature. It would greatly reduce the death rate of teens on our highways; driving today’s heavily traveled roads requires more maturity than driving the roads of the 1950s, when the law setting the age requirement for licenses was passed.

If we made kids stay in school until they turned 18, many might graduate. It’s possible that instead of being a drain on Georgia’s society, they could become productive citizens; instead of using tax dollars, they would pay taxes.

Don Hayes, an influential carpet exec from Dalton, sent us an interesting letter to the editor published in The Economist. The writer, Alasdair Findlay from Gloucestershire, England, says that if NATO purchased Afghanistan’s opium crop that “the Al Qaeda-Taliban network would lose its primary source of funding.” There would be “no money, no bombs, or compensation for the families of suicide-bombers.” It would also give the poor of that country a cash crop, Mr. Findlay argues, and the opium could be destroyed or used for morphine.

Don wants to know why a version of this idea wouldn’t work in the U.S. He believes that if we could apply this approach on the federal level to the cocaine crops in Columbia and other parts of South America, it would save millions of dollars that we spend on law enforcement and to keep inmates in prison. It would give the country’s farmers a decent cash crop.

Obviously, as we have seen with the recent flat tax and sales tax proposals, there are no easy answers to these complex issues. But our responses so far are not working. These “outside the box” solutions could dry up the drug trade and keep kids off the street and out of the prison system.

If we could keep them in school and help them mature and graduate, we could save kids from turning the wrong way. We could also save tax dollars, and produce a higher caliber citizen in the process.

Neely Young is editor in chief and publisher of Georgia Trend. Contact him via e-mail at

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