This editorial appeared in the Scottsbluff Star-Herald.
A crackdown on truancy in Nebraska has been unpopular with some parents and county officials.
Some parents don't believe truancy is a big deal, and they resent attempts by the legal system to compel attendance. Others complain that their children's truancy is caused by medical issues. Counties don't like having their county attorneys burdened by a requirement to look into cases of excessive absenteeism.
But society has an interest in making sure that children get an education. For one thing, school attendance is a matter of state law. Schools can be penalized for poor student performance, even when it's the result of irresponsible parenting. And failure in life is often generational. In the long run, taxpayers suffer for having to foot the bill for adult citizens who are ill prepared to make a living and pay their own bills.
So it would be best for Nebraska if the Legislature resists the urge to backpedal too far from progress made in bringing down the state's truancy rate.
In the face of mounting complaints, the author of the original bill, State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, said he now backs a return to emphasis on students with unexcused absences. The law's focus on “excessive absenteeism” meant that students could come under legal scrutiny for justifiable absences, including those caused by prolonged illness, as well as skipping school. Parents complained that the law was subjecting families to unnecessary legal oversight.
Lawmakers addressed some of those concerns by twice amending the law. Still, some groups called for its repeal.
Among them was Voices for Children in Nebraska, which complained that minority students were more likely to be affected by the law as truancy filings more than doubled. The organization said that of the students who missed 20 or more days during the past school year, 71 percent were low-income and half were African-American, Latino or Native American.
The trouble is, those are many of the same students who post low test scores. Schools can't bring those scores up if students aren't in class. Students who miss school frequently are at higher risk of falling behind and ultimately dropping out.
The rising number of filings indicates the law was working as intended. State Department of Education records show that nearly 7.8 percent of Nebraska students missed more than 20 days of school in 2009-10, before the new law took effect. The figure was down to 5.8 percent in the past school year.
While it's hard to make a serious argument in favor of skipping school, there's certainly room for flexible, family-friendly guidelines.
Kids with legitimate health issues shouldn't be the target of truancy policies, although they shouldn't be excused from the obligation to earn passing grades, either. School activities that require students to be away from class, college visits, court appearances, military deployments and religious holidays are other examples of occasions where students who are keeping up with schoolwork shouldn't get into trouble.
Proposed amendments to the law would:
>> Allow districts to intervene with students based only on unexcused absences.
>> Require schools to refer students with more than 20 unexcused absences to the county attorney. The 2010 law required referrals of students with more than 20 absences of any kind. The current amended law requires referrals if a student has more than 20 absences with at least one being unexcused.
>> Eliminate a requirement that parents get a doctor's note in order for a sick child's absence to be excused.
>> Create a new state council, which would include parent representatives, to review school attendance policies and recommend changes. The council also could recommend ways to address truancy and absenteeism on a statewide basis.
>> Set up a $2 million grant program to support school district programs addressing truancy and absenteeism.
Ashford said he hopes the changes will put more responsibility on schools to work with students and parents on attendance issues. “We're putting more onus on the districts to have a policy that's clear,” he said. “We've gone back to trying to identify where intervention is most needed.”
If the amendments pass, lawmakers should keep an eye on results by carefully tracking truancy and dropout rates and student test scores. There's a strong correlation between dropping out of school and failure in life. The policy choice is between acting now or paying later. Unfortunately, there's not much political support for government requiring adults to take responsibility for their own bad decisions.
The bottom line: Nobody benefits when kids skip school.