Choice is Better than ‘War on Truancy’
SACRAMENTO — That Sudanese Texas high-school teenager, arrested after school authorities and police mistook his homemade clock for a bomb, has become a nationwide news story because of what it might say about the assumptions some people make about Muslims. But it’s also a tale about the increasingly fearful nature of the public-school system.
Years ago, I recall an elementary school student in the Midwestern city where I lived being suspended for bringing a knife to school. It was a butter knife, and she “brandished” it at lunchtime simply to spread her peanut butter. The rules were the rules — and those Iowa public schools had a “zero tolerance” for knives.
I’ve always had “zero tolerance” for such rigidity — and for modeling learning institutions after medium-security prisons. My youngest daughter is counting her days until graduation largely because the place — a highly rated suburban school – resembles a fortress.
I’m venting after reading the latest publication from California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Released Wednesday, the “In School + On Track” report looks at “California’s elementary school truancy and absenteeism crisis.” Harris’ ongoing anti-truancy effort has the backing of some of the state’s most-prominent officials.
The report touts some progress toward cutting back on absentee rates, but warns about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which “excessive absenteeism for any reason — an excused or unexcused absence, or due to suspensions — is a solvable component of this negative trajectory for our state’s most vulnerable elementary school students.”
No one denies truancy can be a problem — or that high-school dropouts face nearly insurmountable hurdles. Clearly, the prison system is filled with former truants. But the report is filled with broad brush strokes that plague those well-intentioned zero-tolerance policies designed to protect kids from knives and bombs.
The most telling portion of the report may be its glossary of “key terms.” It explains the calculation for Average Daily Attendance. That “ADA” number is significant because school systems receive state funds based on the percentage of school days that kids attend, which leads some critics to suggest that crackdowns on truancy are more about money than anything else.
Indeed, the definition of truancy is a student who is “absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on three occasions in a school year.” A habitual truant is defined as being absent without an excuse for five days during a 175- or 180-day school year. And chronic truants have missed at least 10 percent of the school year.
We all get it about kids who skip school 17 or 18 times a year. But being 30 minutes late three times? And one hardly is incorrigible for missing five days in a school year. Surely, schools have the tools to target the small number of problem kids without turning a narrow problem into a crisis – or implementing new proposals that require closer tracking of every student as they make their way from class to class.
“Most kids are truant because they don’t like the particular situation they are in,” said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. “If we paid more attention to school choice and to kids’ specific needs, which isn’t that difficult, much of the problem will go away.”
That seems obvious. People are more apt to skip any activity they don’t like – and more apt to participate in things that interest them. Yet the system offers a standardized approach that doesn’t work well for everyone. Offering academic choice hardly is radical in a nation that is addicted to choice in virtually every aspect of life.
Other states have started rolling back their “tough on truancy” campaigns after well-publicized incidents of truants (and their parents) being fined and even jailed for missing school.
The latest California proposals involve better student tracking and databases, encouraging school districts to intervene early, and creating new discipline policies. It’s vague and many ideas are harmless enough. But creating a sense of crisis will only exacerbate the process by which public schools become locked down so tightly that common sense can’t enter the campus.