WendyMcElroy.com | A standard legal definition of truancy is provided by A Quick Guide to Truancy Prosecution issued by Los Angeles County Education Coordinating Council. The Guide states “Any pupil subject to compulsory full-time education who is absent from school without valid excuse three full-time days in one school year or tardy or absent for more than any 30-minute period during the school day without a valid excuse on three occasions in one school year, or any combination thereof, is a truant.” After going through a warning process, chronic truants are often referred to a truancy court. In essence, this is a specialized family court in which parents and/or their truant children must explain themselves to a judge. Although such courts are relatively new, they have spread quickly.

As in other family courts, the truancy judge exercises a great deal of discretion. One judge in Pennsylvania bragged of being harsh with parents and children. Of parents who did not attend court-ordered guidance classes, he declared, “bam! I slam them in jail.”

Why Criminalize Truancy Now?

Officials who pursue truants argue that it is “for the children’s good.” They point to the alleged benefits of a public school education but another justification emerged. Truancy is called a “gateway crime” that leads to more serious ones and, so, it puts children on the fast track from public school to prison.

The real motive for the war on truancy is money, however. Public schools receive funding for every child who attends at least 60% of the school day; for example, the Berkeley, California school district reportedly receives $35 a day in state funding. Federal programs and other sources of funding also use attendance rates to delegate money to districts. The U.S. Department of Education offers a general sense of where the funding comes from, “In the 2004-05 school year, 83 cents out of every dollar spent on education is estimated to come from the state and local levels (45.6 percent from state funds and 37.1 percent from local governments). The federal government’s share is 8.3 percent.” \

It is difficult to find reliable data on how much schools spend to educate a child for one school year (approx. 180 days). In a March 10, 2010 Cato policy report entitled “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools,” Adam Schaeffer wrote,

Although public schools are usually the biggest item in state and local budgets, spending figures provided by public school officials and reported in the media often leave out major costs of education and thus understate what is actually spent.

To document the phenomenon, this paper reviews district budgets and state records for the nation’s five largest metro areas and the District of Columbia. It reveals that, on average, per-pupil spending in these areas is 44 percent higher than officially reported.

Real spending per pupil ranges from a low of nearly $12,000 in the Phoenix area schools to a high of nearly $27,000 in the New York metro area.

The financial stakes are high, with the flow of money into school coffers hinging upon student attendance. This establishes precisely the wrong incentive. When a government agency is paid for the number of people it processes, that agency has a strong incentive to force as many people as possible to use its ‘service’. Attendance becomes mandatory, and the ‘right’ to an education becomes a legal requirement to obtain one.

Now public schools are taking the next step to ensure that absenteeism does not deny them tax-dollars. If the absence is chronic, then officials are going after the parents with the threat of fines and jail time. The threat is not an empty one.

San Francisco leads the Way

In a San Francisco Examiner (09/24/08) article entitled “Why prosecute parents of chronically truant students?,” then-district attorney of San Francisco Kamala Harris explained, “I chose to file criminal charges against six parents whose children, as young as 6 years old, had missed as many as 80 days out of a 180-day school year. Those parents are now reporting to a model Truancy Court we created…” One of the powers of the Court is to mandate family services and training programs. In the case of a chronic truant, the student may become a ward of the court.

Harris’ crusade began with a letter. Near the start of the 2007-08 school year, all parents or guardians of “a San Francisco Unified School District student” received notification that she was prepared to prosecute those who “broke the law by keeping their children out of school.” In an article in the Bay Citizen, Harris proclaimed her policy as a success. Pointing to attendance figures that were up by 4,500 days, she said that the increase caused a “savings of $350,000.” That is, the schools received $350,000 of additional funding from the state and federal governments. Other statistics back up the claim. For example, in the 2007-08 school year, there were reportedly 5,436 students with 10 or more unexcused absences. In 2009-10, there were 3,605.

Eager to “save” more, Harris then pushed a 2010 Chronic Truancy Reduction bill. As a result of its passage, the parents of truants can now be punished with up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine or both.

Other cash-strapped school districts are taking notes. An article in the May 29, 2012 San Francisco Chronicle explained, “A year ago, Berkeley school Superintendent Bill Huyett…took about $250,000 out of the district’s bank account and placed a bet.” He hired staff ‘to focus entirely on student attendance’.” The result? Within nine months, the district reaped “more than $1 million in state and other funding to pay for the 150 additional students on average who now show up for school each day.” The district reversed its plans to send out 148 pink slips to teachers. – Read Entire Article

By Wendy McElroy