Bruce Maiman: Parents must be part of truancy fix

If we’re going to reduce school truancy, it won’t be with the proposals pushed this year in the state Legislature and by Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office, but by putting more responsibility on parents.

State records show that in 2012-13, about 1 in 5 California students was truant, which the state defines as being absent or more than 30 minutes late without a valid excuse three or more times during a school year.

A report compiled by Harris’ office found that in 2013-14, truancy rates were highest in the earliest grades: 26 percent of kindergartners, gradually declining to 21 percent by fifth grade. The elementary school truancy rate for Sacramento County is 26 percent, about 20 percent for El Dorado and Yolo counties, and 15 percent in Placer County, the report noted.

Are three unexcused absences in 180 school days cause for panic? How about 36 days, which California classifies as a “severe attendance problem”? Harris’ report notes that among those truant students, 90 percent were from low-income households.

Last week, Harris expressed disappointment that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed two bills she argued would help reduce truancy. In a statement, she called the bills “missed opportunities to help keep California’s youngest and most vulnerable students on track.” The two measures, Assembly Bills 1866 and 1672, would have mandated a wider collection of student attendance data to be sent to the state.

The passage of the Local Control Funding Formula in June 2013 already requires school districts to monitor and address such absenteeism. How does giving more data to some Sacramento bureaucrat solve a truancy problem happening, say, in Palmdale, that local officials can’t tackle?

Education leaders, the governor noted in his veto, called such mandates little more than “disaggregation, formatting and Internet posting.”

In other words, paperwork.

Let’s not make light of truancy. Many studies have linked frequent absence to low academic achievement and high dropout rates, though in California, dropout rates have fallen every year since 2008 while graduation rates have risen for four consecutive years, records show. But from elected officials to newspaper editorials, it’s the same old plea: Schools need to do more to work with families of truant children.

How about families doing more?

Once again, we’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We spend extraordinary amounts of money to provide a K-12 education to students, free of charge. Parents have responsibilities to the children they bear. If they have so little regard that they can’t be bothered to even provide an excuse for their child’s absence, then the problem rests with the parent, not the school.

Call me cynical, incidentally, if I see money as an additional motivation here. Chronic absenteeism means loss of school funding, which, in California, is based on average daily attendance. Poor school performance also impacts test scores, which impacts federal funding.

Well, two can play that game. We’re holding dollars over the heads of schools, can’t we do that with parents?

If 90 percent of chronically absent kids are from low-income families, dare we ask how many of those families are receiving entitlement benefits – and whether we should tie those benefits to school attendance?

Too harsh? Interestingly, while district attorney of San Francisco, Harris sharply reduced truancy rates by prosecuting parents and sending warning letters to every family in the district.

In the past 10 years, 740 parents of Alameda County children were dragged into Superior Court and charged with truancy infractions. According to court records, nearly 90 percent of the children involved showed improved attendance.

The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office has a program called PACT, Partners Against Chronic Truancy. The DA sends a letter to families with chronically truant students, warning parents that they are legally required to send their kids to school, while inviting them to attend a PACT meeting. At these meetings, an assistant DA, a public defender, a Superior Court judge and other legal officials volunteer their time to connect families with counseling services, mentoring programs, parenting classes and school nurses. According to the DA’s website, school attendance skyrockets just from sending the letter. In 2012, the program received several national and state honors for its effectiveness and cost-saving approach.

Certainly, there are parents with hardships who truly have difficulties getting their young ones to school, but negligent parents should be punished in the pocketbook or prosecuted in court, not chased around by school districts. Every dollar a district spends to track truants and notify parents is money not available to teach. It’s sad that we go to such lengths to demand accountability from schools while doing so much less to demand it from parents.