Before anyone rushes to repeal the state’s anti-truancy law, Nebraskans should remember the reason behind it: If kids aren’t in school, they won’t learn.
When the law was first passed in 2010, Nebraska had a big problem.
During the 2009-10 school year, before the new law, nearly 22,000 public school students missed more than 20 days of school. That was 7.8 percent of the students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
On the state’s 11th-grade reading assessment for the 2010-11 school year, students who missed fewer than 20 days of class scored an average of 104. The average score for students who missed more than 20 days was 72. The pattern was similar for younger students.
Dropout rates rise and academic performance suffers with so many days away from school. Some kids risk getting into trouble.
The response of lawmakers and Gov. Dave Heineman was the new law, which stirred some controversy but also has been proving its worth.
The original law cracked down on excessive absenteeism by forcing schools to report students with more than 20 absences to county attorneys. It has since been revised to soften reporting requirements in cases of illness or other excused absences, and it remains an effective tool for identifying students who are at risk of falling behind or dropping out.
Excessive absences have fallen from that 7.8 percent level to 5.85 percent this past school year.
“The data show that anybody absent over 10 days performs less well on standardized tests, and at 20 days they perform much less well,” says State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the law’s chief architect.
“And look at the kids who are getting into trouble — none of them are in school.”
Despite the Legislature’s modifications, some argue that the law still puts good parents and sick children under suspicion, and at least one parents group is calling for the law’s repeal.
Lawmakers have shown their willingness to change the law to make it better, and Ashford told The World-Herald that he remains open to suggestions for improving it.
However, he is right to reject calls for repealing it.
The law’s backers, including the governor, have argued that sick kids and those whose absences are excused for legitimate reasons are not the targets of this law. Common sense on the part of school and justice system officials should prevail in such cases.
One area of confusion is that different school districts define excused and unexcused absences differently. Some districts excuse absences for attending funerals, for example, and some don’t.
“What we (the Legislature) have tried to do is avoid telling the school districts what constitutes an excused absence,” Ashford said. “It’s impossible to come up with all the various possibilities.”
Local control remains an important principle, but one modification that could help is making clear in the law that school districts must precisely define what constitutes an excused absence, have a clear-cut plan for dealing with excessive absences and then make certain those definitions and plans are communicated to parents.
Ashford says he’s looking at such an idea.
“It’s legitimate for a mom to complain that, ‘My child’s chronically ill and I’m going to court.’ That shouldn’t be happening,” the lawmaker said. “The good thing about the law is that we’ve started to think hard about truancy.”
It wasn’t that long ago that too many Nebraska kids were missing too much school, too many weren’t learning and too many were getting into other trouble. Those problems haven’t yet disappeared.
Missing 20 days of school means being out of class for about one school day in every 10. The better path is to keep more kids in school — and keep them learning.